In 2010, Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, waded into a domestic political debate he would have been well advised to avoid. By declaring that “Our national debt is our biggest national-security threat,” Admiral Mullen painted a bull’s-eye on the Pentagon for every shortsighted budget-cutter in Washington to aim at. Since Admiral Mullen’s comment, it has been nearly impossible for the Pentagon to mount any defense against even the most foolish and dangerous budget cuts. After all, if the organization responsible for securing America is declaring our national debt to be the number-one security threat, then it must, of course, lead the way in taking the cuts that will help reduce that threat.
Last week we saw the outcome of Admiral Mullen’s misjudgment, when the president crossed the Potomac to announce his administration’s new strategic guidance to the Department of Defense. As the uniformed military salutes and does its best to carry out the new guidance, there are some things about it that all Americans must be made aware of. The most important is that this is not a strategy aimed at securing the country. Rather, it is designed for one purpose only: to cut hundreds of billions of dollars out of the defense budget — consequences be damned.
The new guidance declares that “preventing Afghanistan from ever being a safe haven” for terrorists is one of its “central” goals. Then, in the very next paragraph, it discusses our impending withdrawal from Afghanistan. As part of “deterring and defeating aggression,” the new guidance says the military must be able to “secure territory and populations,” but then goes on to state that it only has to do this “on a small scale and for a limited period.” The administration forgets that the enemy gets a vote on the scale and length of any conflict. But that is far from the end of the guidance’s inconsistencies. The military is also tasked with being ready to “provide a stabilizing presence,” but only after making “thoughtful choices” as to the “location and frequency” of such stabilization efforts. Translation: Reduce stabilizing efforts even as the world is becoming progressively more unstable. In another insult to clear thinking, the guidance sets one of the military’s “primary missions” as conducting “stability and counterinsurgency operations.” In keeping with its established pattern, however, it then goes on to state: “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” After our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, how is it possible that the administration appears not to be aware that such operations are always and everywhere prolonged and troop-intensive?
In fact, many of the missions the administration has told the military to focus on are troop-intensive. Despite this, the Army and Marine Corps are planning for mandated cuts of approximately 150,000 troops from their strength, much of that cutting to come from the combat forces. Such cuts would be an unmitigated disaster for the security of our nation. Only through the most drastic means were the Marines and Army just able to scrape together enough forces for Iraq and Afghanistan. Even then, our effort in Afghanistan always had to be shortchanged to ensure that enough troops were available to win in Iraq. I still remember watching a four-star general voice his frustration over his staff’s inability to find a single extra combat brigade to fulfill a request from a commander in combat. Despite this, the Army is now planning how it is going to secure this nation with 15 fewer brigade combat teams than we now possess.
One of the great fallacies believed by those with only a limited knowledge of the military is that we have a large number of combat troops. In truth, what the military calls the “point of the spear” is rather thinly manned. If you put all of the Army’s and Marine Corps’s combat troops (infantry, armor, and artillery) inside the Rose Bowl, you would still have over 30,000 empty seats. If the Army ever again took losses that were typical of a single day’s hard fighting in many of our past wars, our current force would be decimated beyond its ability to recover.
This is the force the strategic guidance is setting up for a gutting. Given the host of challenges and the growing power of our potential enemies, this appears a particularly bad time to consider a unilateral disarming of the force that has underpinned the Pax Americana for almost 70 years. Unfortunately, Vegetius’s words “If you want peace, prepare for war” remain as true today as when he wrote them 1,600 years ago. Although the administration’s military guidance repeatedly states that its goal is to maintain a sufficient force to deter aggression and assure peace, its policies are doing exactly the opposite. One would be hard pressed to think of any example where a potential aggressor was deterred by seeing his opponent weaken himself.
Remarkably, even the administration does not believe its guidance is a good idea. How do I know? Its own guidance document says so. At one point, the document instructs the military to reduce the force in such a way that it can be rapidly “regenerated” in the event of an emergency. At another point it says “reversibility . . . is a key part of our decision calculus.” When before has a nation ever announced a new defense strategy in which a major part of the plan revolves reversing everything the plan sets out to do? In fact, throughout the military, planning staffs are looking for ways to reduce the force — ways that will maintain their ability to increase the force when the inevitable next crisis arises. In fact, the two most common terms used by military planners today are “reversibility” and “expansibility.”
So why are we pursuing a course of action that every serious strategist believes is putting us on the wrong road? Because too many folks have concluded that we cannot afford our current military commitments. As a percentage of GDP, however, the military budget is set to fall to its lowest point since before World War II, and well under half of what we maintained throughout the Cold War. It is not the military budget that is bankrupting the nation. Rather, it is runaway entitlement spending that is set to wreck the nation’s economic future. On the way to doing that, it appears set to first undermine the nation’s ability to secure its vital interests. If Congress and the administration cannot get our economic house in order soon, then we must prepare ourselves for America’s continued retreat.
It is only a matter of time before a potential enemy calculates that we have weakened ourselves to the point that it can roll the dice. If you think staying prepared for war is expensive, try getting caught up in one when unprepared.
— Jim Lacey is the professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.