Don't cut to the core

Pentagon reductions are necessary, but let us not forget the military's most basic role: the ability to defeat any enemy

January 17, 2012|By Bruce S. Lemkin

In announcing the administration's new Defense "guidance," President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have — to their credit — avoided the historically oft-repeated pitfall of assuming that the conflicts of today portend the nature of the conflicts of the future. However, the vision they outline fails to realistically and specifically define just how the United States will, would, and could defeat a threat such as we have faced in Afghanistan and Iraq with the transformed, leaner force prescribed. And that's just the beginning.

Budget sufficiency is relative: An interesting argument may be that our military forces were never made large enough to fight the two wars of the past 10 years and emerge fully victorious. Even with the seeming vastness of the U.S. commitment, including huge budget "supplementals," the American war effort was constrained throughout by insufficient resources — not just in terms of numbers of ground forces but in force level of available assets, such as to provide air power (including tankers) to support our troops on the ground. Just ask any grunt, firing a mortar (seemingly an anachronism in the 21st century) while awaiting a requested airstrike.

So, lack of political leadership and political will to address a budget crisis that has been many years in the making has driven us to this new defense strategy. These are the primary missions laid out in the document: "Counter Terrorism and Irregular Warfare," "Deter and Defeat Aggression," "Project Power Despite Anti-Access/Area Denial Challenges," "Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction," "Operate Effectively in Cyberspace and Space," "Maintain a Safe and Effective Nuclear Deterrent," "Defend the Homeland and Provide Support to Civil Authorities," "Provide a Stabilizing Presence," "Conduct Stability and Counterinsurgency Operations," "Conduct Humanitarian, Disaster Relief," and "Other Operations."

All of these things seem directly in line with what our nation's military forces ought to be able to do, 24/7. Except — where is the ability to defeat any foreseeable enemy, anyplace, anytime, overwhelmingly and decisively? Is that not, as an opening argument, what we expect of America's military? And isn't that what may deter any potential aggressor that would contemplate denying us our freedom?

Obviously, budgets cannot be unlimited; everything is a compromise. Anybody who has spent a lifetime in the U.S. defense establishment, as I have, knows that there are areas of unnecessary redundancy — even flagrant waste and bloated infrastructure and organizations — and these ought to be addressed on an urgent basis.

However, if even today resource constraints challenge our ability to carry out all the stipulated missions effectively, we must ask how we will do so with a significantly leaner force. And while we declare that "we will out of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region," do we really think that China will restrain its ambitions as we cut our force and the resources that undergird it?

In particular, the missions of "Deter and Defeat Aggression" and "Provide a Stabilizing Presence" require a truly global force: a Navy and an Air Force that are deployed in sufficient numbers around the world, with the ability to project lethal power anyplace, anytime, with minimal response time. This requires aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, advanced jet fighters and penetrating bombers, along with the space and other intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications assets to support them. The costs are not small, but the consequences of insufficiently funding these capabilities are great.

The viability, capacity and resiliency of our industrial base are mentioned, at most, as an aside. But sustaining our technological development and industrial bases are absolutely vital to ensuring that we always have the advantage over any adversary. And ensuring the health of our technological and industrial capabilities requires actual research, design, and construction of leading-edge military and associated systems.

Secretary Panetta's document declares, "Building partnership capacity in the world also remains important for sharing the costs and responsibilities of global leadership." I agree completely; in this interconnected world, we cannot do it all by ourselves, even if we had unlimited resources. As one who has been intimately involved in actually building partnership capacity for the past nine years, I know that key to building willing, interoperable partner nations is the ability to offer them the best possible military systems and their attendant capabilities — all dependent on a strong, vibrant technology and industrial base.

We do not yet know what devil really is in these details. Secretary Panetta mentions "acceptable risk." But it will take numerous, very smart programmatic and associated budget decisions to ensure that such risk does, indeed, turn out to be "acceptable." Our enemies, and those who may become our enemies, will be watching. Those concerned about the future of our nation must do so, too.

Bruce S. Lemkin, a Naval Academy graduate and Crownsville resident, is an international aerospace and defense consultant. He served as deputy under secretary of the Air Force, 2003-2010. Previously, he was a career Navy officer and commanded two nuclear submarines.

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