Armed with the Odds

Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Marines fighting vehicle
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Cutting the U.S. defense budget, even by a little, is fraught with predictions and bets. Unlike other major federal spending, the defense budget is a wager on what lies ahead overseas: Will it be peace, war, or deterrence? Who are our potential adversaries, and what will become of the current ones? Armies and navies are built and sustained over many years in response to these deadly serious calculations about war and the prevention of war.

Even so, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed cuts to the Pentagon’s budget earlier this year, he set off more than the usual guns-and-butter political debate. That same week, the national debt surpassed a dubious milestone: $14 trillion, an all-time high. Analysts note that soaring federal expenditures on entitlement programs will rise further as President Obama’s signature health care program comes on line. Above all, Americans remain gripped by apprehension about perceptions of political and economic decline.

The Gates cuts represent the first slowdown in the growth of the defense budget in more than a decade. Such spending has risen an inflation-adjusted 65 percent since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and under Gates the budget will continue to rise, albeit at a slower pace. His proposed cuts were driven not by the Defense Department but by the White House, which is presiding over the mountainous and potentially ruinous U.S. debt and now must confront a reshaped House of Representatives, many of whose members were elected on a promise to fix the ballooning federal deficit.

Marines fighting vehicle
A prototype of the Marines’ amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle roars toward shore. Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered that the multibillion-dollar EFV project—plagued by cost overruns, mechanical breakdowns, and failed tests—be scrubbed. Remarkably, the Marine Corps commandant concurred, saying the Marines could spend the money better elsewhere.

The Oval Office had instructed the Pentagon to squeeze some $78 billion in growth from its projected spending over the next five years. Its initial demands were for even greater defense belt-tightening, but Gates reportedly pushed back against the commander in chief and his West Wing appointees. The final plan excluded actual outlays for the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (Afghanistan alone consumes more than $100 billion a year).

The defense secretary’s spending plan came with recommendations to shrink the size of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, eliminate certain big-ticket weapons systems, and modernize older weapons and vehicles. A closer look shows where the Pentagon is placing its bets on the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how it is hedging its bets on China and the growing Chinese military prowess.


Most obviously, Gates assumes a diminished need for ground combat. The Army would see its active-duty troop levels fall 27,000, from the existing 569,000, while the Marine Corps shrinks by as many as 20,000 troops, from its current size of 202,000, by the time of the presumed hand-over of Afghanistan to national forces in 2014. The Gates budget bets that land-warfare commitments will continue to shrink from their height three years ago, when infantry-intense battles raged in Iraq and Taliban attacks escalated in Afghanistan. It assumes that America can avoid interventions. But since the end of the Cold War, U.S. forces have intruded on foreign territory on average every two and a half years, and thus the odds are against a stay-in-the-barracks military force.

The Gates cuts were driven not by the Defense Department but by the White House, which is presiding over the mountainous and potentially ruinous national debt.

The Pentagon assumption rests on several other near-term factors. First, Iraq will persist in its demands that all 48,000 U.S. military personnel be withdrawn by the end of this year, per the 2008 agreement with President Bush. Second, the Taliban and related groups will not ramp up the insurgency while NATO forces continue to head for the exit. Third, nuclear-armed Pakistan will retain its dubious stability and move against Taliban havens on its territory, thereby sparing U.S. forces the job. Finally, the gradually scaled-down Army and Marine units will not have to intervene in Yemen, Somalia, or along the Mexican border to contain violence connected to drug cartels. The Gates bet, then, depends on the known problems remaining manageable for the next few years. As for unknown contingencies, such as tumult in Egypt and elsewhere, the forecasts are unclear.

In short, the lower troop levels rest on the belief that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will soon be history, with no repetitions elsewhere.

Since the Cold War, U.S. forces have intruded on foreign territory on average every two and a half years. The odds are against a stay-in-thebarracks military force.

Take a moment to reflect on how cuts in military personnel have been handled, and mishandled, in the past. Severe troop reductions in the post-Vietnam era created a byword: the “hollow Army.” Armed forces in the 1970s felt the ax of anti–Vietnam War politicians. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, he restored funding and morale among fighting forces. But again, after the Berlin Wall collapsed, the U.S. military underwent a less-criticized hollowing out in pursuit of a post–Cold War “peace dividend.” The Army, the Navy, and the Air Force experienced almost 40 percent reductions in size during the 1990s; the Marines, the smallest of our forces, went down less drastically. The Navy culled a nearly 600-ship fleet to fewer than 300. The Air Force scaled down from 28 fighter wing equivalents in 1989 to 13 by 1997. It retained its lethality, nevertheless, by the introduction of smart weapons, satellite- and laser-guided munitions that enable pilots to hit targets with pinpoint accuracy.

The Army was the biggest loser in the 1990s Pentagon worldview because few military and civilian leaders envisaged protracted ground combat after the Red Army withdrew from central Europe. The Army went from 18 active divisions to 10 by the start of the Iraq War in 2003. Just before the 9/11 attacks, moreover, the Pentagon civilian leadership had been considering further Army reductions to just 7 active divisions—so heady was the belief that an agile, mobile, and lethal force could knock out any adversary with “shock and awe.”

Fortunately for the American enterprise in Iraq, that dangerous wager was never executed. Still, it offers a warning to those who believe that high-tech machines alone can win wars. As the Southwest Asia experience confirms, only land forces can clear and hold terrain from entrenched enemies. The unplanned-for insurgent warfare in Iraq—after the “shock and awe” phase—taxed America’s ground forces unduly. It required repeated tours of duty for infantrymen in the Army and Marines, prolonged activation of reserve and National Guard units, and implementation of compulsory “stop loss” orders, which delayed some 140,000 service members from leaving the ranks after their service commitments expired and constituted the major factor in the extraordinarily high suicide rate among young troopers with multiple combat tours. When defense bets lose, they are costly.

Just before 9/11, steep Army reductions were on the table—so heady was the belief that an agile, mobile, and lethal force could knock out any adversary with “shock and awe.”

Gates’s projected downsizing over five years does not constitute a hollowing out of America’s land forces, although it is still a bet on the future we want, not on what we might get. Perhaps the American public’s disenchantment with the expenditure of so much blood and treasure in the lands east of the Persian Gulf will constrain Washington from venturing again into gigantic conflicts that cost a trillion dollars and nearly six thousand lives. But the future is unknowable.


Another wager stems from the extraordinary rise of China to the front ranks of world powers. Not since nineteenth-century Germany burst on the international scene has a country so catapulted itself into the American consciousness.

The threatening armaments and blustering behavior of pre–World War I Germany helped lock Europe into a collision course that European powers failed to avert. History need not repeat itself, but the historical warning lights are currently blinking yellow over Sino-American tensions. Conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan, North Korea, or tiny, disputed islands off the Asian continent is far from preordained. Yet the emergence of China, like that of the Kaiser’s Germany, unleashes competitive forces, envy, dread, and resentment, which could explode in an unexpected minor flashpoint, such as the assassination in Sarajevo almost a century ago. Moreover, too much budget austerity or bets on the wrong mix of jets, ships, and missiles might inadvertently signal to Beijing a lack of resolve or capability to defend American interests in the Western Pacific. Such an outcome would mean deterrence failed; the bet was unrealistic.

The Chinese military’s test flight of its new, stealthy J-20 fighter, which coincided with Gates’s January visit to Beijing, was as welcome as shark fins near the beach. Its arching across the sky, together with China’s sustained, double-digit defense spending, aggressive pursuit of territorial claims in surrounding seas, and failure to curb its North Korean ally, have all contributed to a refreshing realism in Washington. Frank acknowledgement of the People’s Liberation Army’s growing military might had gone unspoken; instead, American officials referred obliquely to China as if, like Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels, it “must not be named.” Hence, Pentagon scenarios and budgets noted only an unidentified “area-denial and anti-access” ability, without citing China’s growing militarization. Now that self-censoring veil has been stripped away, revealing an emergent China with a modernizing arsenal of technologically advanced weaponry.

Canceling or even trimming a weapon or closing a base triggers intense politics. Closeouts always boil down to lost local jobs—and lost votes for a sitting politician.

The defense budget proposal thus takes a modest crossover step from a posture fixed on counterinsurgency war-fighting to glimmers of recognition that America is a Pacific power with vital interests in East Asia. Hence, Gates’s last budget before his retirement might constitute a transition.

The proposed budget underwrites several systems suited to the new Asian reality. Spending is designated for electronic jammers (to counter Chinese electronic warfare), new radar for F-15 fighters, and carrier-launched drones for surveillance over wide ocean areas and strikes against threats to U.S. warships from other vessels or shore-based sites. It also funds the plans for the Air Force’s next-generation penetration bomber, a platform plainly unnecessary for the current low-intensity engagement in Afghanistan.


Gates also laid his bets for and against weapons now being developed. He is not the first defense secretary to cancel lingering white elephants, of course. His immediate predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, canceled the Army’s Crusader, a self-propelled howitzer, and its Comanche, an armed reconnaissance helicopter. The Rumsfeldian Pentagon also delayed and reduced funding for the Army’s premier Future Combat Systems, a fleet of manned and unmanned networked vehicles that finally died a dignified death by being further studied under another program. As a consolation to the Army, money chopped by Gates from its hoped-for new weapons was designated to upgrade the Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and the Stryker armored vehicle. This was prudent, since each of these armored carapaces is deployed in hostile environments.

Gates inevitably also closed in on some favorite weapons packages that the military branches, along with their corporate and political allies, will fight to salvage. The Army lost its non-line-of-sight missile; the Marines saw their variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter placed on probation; and the Corps also stood to lose its long-awaited seaborne vehicle. Longing to return to their World War II beach-landing fame, Marine generals had billed the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) as a fast and protected transport from warship to shore-storming operations. The multibillion-dollar amphibious EFV (being developed by General Dynamics) hit heavy political seas. Plagued by cost overruns, mechanical breakdowns, and failed tests, the expeditionary vehicle, in the view of Gates and other experts, is an anachronism unsuited to the age of accurate cruise missiles that can easily be fired at it from coastal batteries.

The decision to cancel the Marine vehicle might not stick; it has already run into intense political and corporate lobbying. Ironically, the Marine Corps commandant, General James Amos, has publicly praised Gates’s decision to cancel the EFV, saying that the money saved by not producing the vastly expensive vehicle could be more usefully plowed into other vehicles and systems. But if the history of the Osprey (a tilt-rotor aircraft with a vertical takeoff and landing capability) is any indication, the EFV might prevail. The Marine-backed Osprey encountered manifold problems, deadly crashes, and over tenfold cost overruns that prompted civilian officials to cancel its development more than once. Today, the Osprey flies in the Afghan skies carrying Special Forces and other troops as well as Marines.

The Chinese military’s test flight of its new, stealthy fighter jet, which coincided with Gates’s visit to Beijing, was as welcome as shark fins near the beach.

Last year, Gates ran afoul of local interests in another venue when he tried to eliminate the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk. Its founding mission had largely been accomplished and it had become a contractors’ haven, with associated high defense expenditures. Parochial interests—the bane of defense-cutting efforts for decades—forced a partial retreat. Under congressional lobbying, the defense secretary decided that about half of the JFC duties could be parceled out to other Defense Department entities in Virginia’s Tidewater area. The JFC case shows how difficult and complex it is to pare down the Pentagon’s budget. Canceling or even trimming a weapon or closing a base triggers intense politics because closeouts boil down to lost local jobs—and votes for a sitting politician. The process is far from the best way to devise and implement a global defense strategy, but it is as American as pumpkin pie.


The defense budget, even with its trims, is not a doomsday omen for America’s fighting forces. It avoids drastic military belt-tightening characteristic of postwar eras while making some calculated bets, such as anticipating smaller ground forces and making incremental changes to the Pacific naval and air defenses.

In some respects, the Gates plan is a pre-emptive strike that tries to frame the defense-budget debate for fiscal year 2012. Faced with the need to trim federal spending, Gates sought to accommodate the prevailing mood of fiscal restraint and husband military strength. His short-term bets could be reversed next year if necessary. And, in the end, Congress and the White House must scrutinize other federal expenditures, including the swollen entitlement programs, to restore fiscal soundness and halt runaway deficits. The Pentagon budget comes to slightly over 20 percent of all federal expenditures, so even an unrealistic 10 percent cut in military spending would fail to dent the immense federal budget outlays. Like Willie Sutton, budget cutters must go where the money is—the bloated and burgeoning domestic programs and subsidies—for large savings.