When Will the Military Services Come to Grips with a New Era of Austerity?

By Sledge, Nathaniel H.,Jr. | National Defense, March 2012 | Go to article overview

When Will the Military Services Come to Grips with a New Era of Austerity?


Sledge, Nathaniel H.,Jr., National Defense


Even with a smaller funding pie, the U.S. military services should be able to weather the coming budget reductions. But the services are anxious and insecure institutions. They want more, and they insist that their equipment is aging and in need of modernization.

But if in fact the services' inventories are not in good shape despite the budgetary largesse of the last decade, someone should explain why.

It should be Congiess' role to carefully examine the processes and procedures for planning and programming.

Just because we have the best equipment and well-trained forces doesn't mean that we have a military that is in line with our foreign policy, suited to the security environment, affordable, and in tune with the priorities of the nation. Spending trillions of dollars to defeat non-state actors is nothing to cheer about. We must not conflate having the best military with having an effective and sustainable national defense. A strong military is only one of many elements of power at the nation's disposal. The United States' cultural, economic, and military powers are so overwhelming relative to other countries that our primary enemies are more likely to be socio-economic instability, arrogance, profligacy and waste.

Looking forward into a less exuberant future, it is clear that things must change. A Henry L. Stimson Center study, "What Vie Bought: Defense Procurement from FY01 to FY 10," concluded that the services are modernized. So what are the implications for the services if their budgets are reduced by an average of 17 percent per year over the next 10 years, as could happen according to some deficit-reduction scenarios?

What modernization remains to be achieved in an era of austerity? And how will the services distribute and sustain the already modernized equipment? In sum, how should the services establish priorities with meager personnel, operations, maintenance, research, developing and acquisition funding going forward?

Grief teaches the steadiest minds to waver (Sophocles, Antigone).

There are seven stages of grief. The services seem to have skipped the shock stage and are now in denial. What will it take to convince Pentagon leaders that the tide of spending has turned, and that the services need to come to grips with a new era of austerity? The anger and bargaining stages will come just as soon as future budgets are settled. The services will need to see quickly that severely reduced budgets are "serenity" issues, so they can get on with defending the nation effectively, efficiently and sustainably.

If the vast numbers of modernized systems exceed the shrinking force structure and the correspondingly lower operations and-maintenance funding, what should be the disposition of the high-tech systems? The services' instincts might compel them to abandon, moth-hall, or sell off some of their modernized systems or to double-down and continue doing what they have been doing regardless the changing nature of threats. Recent history suggests they Will attempt to do the later. Perhaps the services will follow the Air Force's example and chase next-generation systems at the expense of more numerous and more affordable existing systems.

Acknowledging critical problems without solving them is not sufficiently redemptive. On the contrary, it is irresponsible. Somehow, the services must transform their coming challenges into opportunities. Funding must be allocated to what is needed to address the present and most likely future threats and what is within the art of the possible politically and economically. The politics must come second to operational merit and stewardship of taxpayer dollars. But allowing the services to make the hardest calls is unrealistic. This is not within the bounds of their DNA. Americans should be skeptical if unexpected future threats look like the Cold War's or today's threats.

The pursuit of many of the weapon systems that the services have been funding over the past several decades are illuminating and shocking examples of resources looking for systems. …

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