Politics & Policy

Budgets and Strategy

A review of the 20th century’s wars shows how dangerous military unpreparedness is.

Earlier this month, the Defense Department released its budget priorities and choices for the next year in an attempt to align America’s strategy with its means — always a noble goal. But it is one made impossible to attain by the fact that we do not have a strategy. Instead we have the administration’s defense strategic guidance (“Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense”), which gives us a list of aspirations, but fails to present the services with any clue on how to achieve them. For instance, we are told that there is a strategic pivot toward Asia. But what that means is anyone’s guess. Are we to counter aggressive Chinese moves in the South China Sea, or maybe defend the first island chain, or the second? If it has become too dangerous for our aircraft carriers to approach the first island chain, meaning that our default position is to defend the second, we need to let folks know. We also need to prepare ourselves and the region for a nuclear-armed Japan, as the Japanese are certain to develop such weapons as soon as it is clear that they cannot count on our immediate support. This and thousands of other questions remain unanswered.

Worse, the strategic guidance is filled with wishful thinking and fantasies. For instance, since stability operations are harder, messier, and more costly than anyone anticipated — as has been demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan — the strategic guidance just wishes them away. The guidance directs that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” (Emphasis in the original.) The Marines and Army interpreted this as meaning exactly what it has turned out to mean in the budget proposal — open season on their force structure and share of the budget.

To defend cuts in the most-used of our military forces, the budget proposal employs some remarkable contortions of logic. Cuts in both forces, amounting to approximately 100,000 personnel, are explained as necessary so as “to transform ground forces stressed from over a decade of combat operations into an Army and Marine Corps postured for the national security challenges of the future.”


The best way to transform forces “stressed” by being far too small for all the tasks assigned them is to cut them by a further 100,000. Really?

Such a course would make some sense if meeting tomorrow’s national-security challenges did not require land forces. But how likely is this? In truth, every national or international crisis in the last 100 years has demanded land forces. It is a safe bet that every crisis in the next century will also involve land forces. It seems to escape policymakers time and again that there is a fundamental reason this will always be true: People live on land. If you want to control, influence, protect, or help people — the very essence of strategy — you have to put a land force on the ground.

Despite this inescapable reality, the end of every crisis or war kicks off a new round of calls for reducing the size of our land forces. Typically one hears several reasons this course makes sense. The most common is “This time it is different.” In other words, the world or warfare has changed to the point that land power is now an anachronism. Always, these pronouncements are accompanied by a host of examples demonstrating why only Neanderthals still believe in the utility of land forces. Before policymakers in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill accept the newest version of “This time it is different,” I invite them to spend a few minutes touring Arlington National Cemetery. A vast majority of the marble gravestones they will see represent the horrendous losses suffered by our land forces when they were committed to wars after enduring years of insufficient funding. Funds were cut because past policymakers heeded the siren call of “This time it is different. It is never different.

Almost as often, one hears that, in the event of an emergency, land forces can be generated quickly. Those making such claims buttress them by pointing back to past wars. Just look, they say, at the vast forces we fielded in World War I and World War II. For that matter, they even point to how we managed to generate forces for Korea and Vietnam. To some extent they have a point. As long as the nation is willing to accept tens of thousands of its sons and, now, its daughters returning home in body bags, then a policy of rapid force generation is feasible.

We must never forget the cost of attempting to fight professionals with amateurs. In the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in World War I, for instance, we lost 100,000 men before the attack was temporarily called off so as to retrain the entire American army before sending it back into the battle. In World War II, amateur American soldiers were humiliated in their first battles and suffered horrific losses. Even in Korea, the tide of battle did not turn until thousands of World War II vets were recalled to fill depleted ranks. And one can only wonder how many of the nearly 60,000 American deaths in Vietnam could have been avoided if we had fought that war with professionals, rather than short-serving draftees. Yes, we can fight future wars with rapidly generated forces, as long as we are willing to sacrifice most of those who are first called to serve.

Interestingly, the same budget proposal calling for drastic reductions in the size of the Marines and the Army allows for gains in Air Force and Navy personnel. In one of my favorite passages in the new budget proposal, we learn that the Navy needs more personnel so as to support increasing numbers of unmanned platforms! I wonder how many thousands of additional personnel it will need if we automate every ship. (That time is coming.) Here is another wonderful admission in the proposal: The Navy has increased its presence at sea over the last three years to the point that it has three carriers at sea at a time. According to the budget proposal this has stressed the force. Huh?

The Navy typically has at least ten carriers in service, and often eleven. It is also building or planning to build three Ford-class carriers at almost $15 billion apiece. How can it be “stressed” by keeping a mere three carriers at sea at a time? Here, then, is a savings idea for the budget: Scrap six carriers and focus on keeping the remaining four or five at sea. The crews can rotate, as they did in World War II.

I have another, related question: Why are we spending so much on such giant targets? Where is that huge and expensive carrier going to hide when 500 Chinese-built DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles come at it? For that matter, tell me why “presence” is so important. Does anyone, anywhere in the world really know whether there is a U.S. Navy ship nearby? Does anyone care? If over-the-horizon strategies are good enough for the Army and Marines, then why not the Navy? We can save a lot of money by keeping our ships in port until they are needed somewhere.

Of course, I am not advocating such a course for the Navy. In fact, it would be absurd to do what I outlined above. It is no less absurd, however, to advocate similar policies for our land forces. For anyone who believes we can generate trained and ready combat divisions faster than the Navy can build new ships and put them at sea does not know his business.

It is time for policymakers to stop funding a military that can fight the kinds of wars we want to fight, and, instead, to start funding a military that can fight the kinds of wars we are going to fight.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming Moment of Battle. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.