Lean, Mean Fighting Machine

How to slash the Pentagon budget? Declare victory and go home.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, said it best, "When waves of change appear, you can duck under the wave, stand fast against the wave, or, better yet, surf the wave." Today, the same tsunami-like wave of debt that threatens to sweep away American economic prosperity is headed for America's defense establishment. President Barack Obama signaled as much with his April 13 budget address, in which he warned: "Just as we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense."

Obama gave no specifics, promising instead to work with the Pentagon to "conduct a fundamental review of America's missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world." But given the poor track record such reviews have -- both Quadrennial Defense Reviews and Roles and Missions Commissions -- and Obama's failure to even address the need to reduce defense spending, the president's words don't deserve to be taken seriously at all. Meanwhile, the Republican failure to take on defense spending -- the 800-pound gorilla in the room -- means the political discourse that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his colleagues seek may degenerate into pointless shouting matches with Capitol Hill's Democrats.

But the message for Republicans and Democrats alike should be that cutting defense doesn't mean going defenseless. It means reducing America's commitments overseas -- the latter-day version of "imperial overstretch" -- and changing the way the United States thinks about warfare. There's a way to do this, one that will allow for deep spending cuts, but in a manner that will preserve and enhance the U.S. military's competitive advantages while improving American national security.

Dealing with defense is admittedly a huge challenge. If directly questioned, the military brass will insist that given the missions they are obligated to undertake (along with a host of classified war plans they could be ordered to execute), reduced spending will put the Armed Forces and by implication the American people at grave risk. Then there's the chorus: a host of defense think tanks inside the Beltway that point out that the opportunity costs associated with cuts in spending and force structure are either unknown or too high; that unless specific alternative military options or tradeoffs are identified up front, capability gaps will emerge with potentially serious consequences for U.S. national security. These arguments are not entirely without merit. But they hardly justify keeping defense spending at current levels.

For one thing, there is no existential military threat to the United States or to its vital strategic interests. The nuclear arsenals in Russia and China could be used against the United States and its forces, but Russian and Chinese leaders have no incentive to contemplate suicide in a nuclear confrontation with the United States. Russia's diminished million-man armed forces are hard-pressed to modernize, let alone secure their own country, which borders 14 other states. For all its rhetoric, Russia's military focus is on restive Muslim populations in the Caucasus and Central Asia, not on NATO.

As for China, its top concern is not military confrontation with the United States, but domestic growing pains, especially the potential for its 1.3 billion people to overwhelm the Communist Party's internal political structures. China's internal focus on modernization and stability militates against external aggression, and this condition is unlikely to change for a very long time. Despite China's ability to steal or buy sophisticated technology, the military establishment cannot quickly or easily translate these technologies into new capabilities, and Beijing knows it.

Other possible threats are even less threatening. The North Korean regime, the poster child for the failure of state socialism, is on the road to extinction. In recent months, China has taken steps to secure its border with North Korea to ensure that millions of starving Koreans cannot rush north into China when the inevitable collapse occurs. Iran is a long way from possessing a nuclear weapon it can deliver, and its general-purpose forces are incapable of action beyond Iran's borders. Lastly, the world's leading scientific-industrial states -- most of Europe, Japan, South Korea, and the leading English-speaking powers, Britain, Australia, and Canada -- are close U.S. allies. All of their economies can and do support powerful military establishments.

What about the possibility that U.S. forces will be needed once again in the broader Middle East? Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and other parts of the Islamic world demonstrate that while many of the societies in the Middle East and North Africa are broken and their people are angry about it, these problems have nothing to do with the United States. The complex cultural problems plaguing the region, from state failure to persistent social pathologies to trouble adapting to modernity, will not be solved through U.S. military occupation and counterinsurgency operations aimed at exporting democracy at gunpoint. The million dollars a year it costs to keep one U.S. soldier or Marine on station in Iraq or Afghanistan makes no sense when, for a fraction of the cost, the U.S. government could easily protect America's borders from the wave of criminality, terrorism, and illegal immigration washing in from Mexico and Latin America.

Future conflicts in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America will not be insurgencies directed at unwanted U.S. military occupations. They are more likely to resemble the Balkan wars of the early 20th century, except that fights for regional power and influence will overlap with competition for energy, water, food, and mineral resources -- and the wealth they create. The United States can probably avoid involvement in these conflicts, but if its strategic interests compel intervention, America can do so with fewer, more potent ground forces than the ones it has today, capitalizing on its aerospace and naval supremacy.

Military strength is no longer based on the mass mobilization of the manpower and resources of the entire nation-state. Fewer, smarter soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines -- with intelligent technology -- can accomplish more than masses of troops with the brute-force tools of the past. Precision effects (kinetic and non-kinetic) utilizing a vast array of strike forces enabled by networked intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities point the way to a fundamental paradigm shift in the character of warfare. For example, today a military contest on the model of Kursk in July 1943, a battle that involved nearly 940,000 attacking German and Allied forces and 1.5 million defending Soviet forces in a geographical area the size of England, would result in catastrophic losses for the Soviet side. That's why those numbers you read about Chinese or Russian troops are less worrisome than they seem. Any future ground combat force that immobilizes itself in prepared defenses on the World War II model will be identified, targeted, and annihilated from a distance. Naval forces that concentrate large numbers of surface combatants risk similar losses in a future increasingly dominated by accurate strike weapons from various manned or unmanned platforms at sea and ashore.

What's needed now is more political courage, not more defense spending. It will fall to America's elected and appointed leaders to direct the Defense Department to aggressively accept more risk in reconciling defense expenditures with the country's urgent fiscal situation. Above all, members of Congress must have the fortitude to challenge the misguided hand-wringing inside the Beltway and put the country's long-term economic and defense interests ahead of winning the next election.

What is to be done?

Before turning to specific cuts, members of Congress should acknowledge that it is unacceptable to expend trillions of dollars for defense when the Defense Department cannot conduct an audit, let alone pass one. The only way to address this problem is to implement a statutory prohibition halting funding for defense beyond fiscal year 2014 until an audit is passed. If the Pentagon doesn't know where the money is going, how can American taxpayers feel confident that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely?

It's high time for something new. What follows here is a plan -- arguably, somewhat radical -- to finally spend wisely and reconfigure the military for the threats of the 21st century. The annualized savings presented here would reduce the current U.S. defense budget by almost 40 percent, some $279.5 billion. This isn't just an accounting exercise, however. What's needed is new strategic thinking, thinking that avoids direct U.S. military involvement in conflicts where the United States itself is not attacked and its national prosperity is not at risk.

As French sociologist Émile Durkheim said, "Society is above all the idea it forms of itself." For Americans who have lived in a world with only one true center of military, political, and economic gravity -- the United States -- changing how their country behaves inside the international system is not an easy task. The temptation to meddle in the affairs of others is huge, especially when the perceived risk-to-reward ratio is low.

Put in the language of tennis, the use of U.S. military power since the early 1960s has resulted in a host of "unforced errors." Far too often, national decision-making has been shaped primarily by the military capability to act, not by rigorous risk assessment. Regardless of how great or small the military commitment, if success is ill-defined and the price of intervention is potentially excessive, then the use of force should be avoided. America has waited too long to learn this hard lesson.

Continue Reading: A Radical Plan for Cutting the Defense Budget

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Tiger Blood

Two years after its brutal counterinsurgency war ended, Sri Lanka faces new questions from the international community.

At the end of May, a braided military gaggle will gather in Colombo's swank Galidari Hotel to extract lessons from Sri Lanka's thorough 2009 defeat of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. The seminar on "Defeating Terrorism" will lead foreign military guests through a series of helpful how-to-do-it PowerPoint presentations. Perhaps out of this forum we can expect a more secure world, and fewer 30-year-long, ethnically driven wars on small islands. Or perhaps this outcome is unlikely on both counts.

Undoubtedly, the world is a better place without the Tamil Tigers. A fearsome and cultish adversary of Sri Lanka's always-struggling democracy, the insurgent organization very nearly brought the state to its knees over three decades of war. The Tigers blew up high-rise buildings, killed Sri Lankan President Premadasa, slew civilians, and wiped out a moderate Tamil opposition. They used children as fighters, recruited women as suicide bombers, and carved out a de facto "homeland" in the country's north. They deployed scuba divers, submarines, shallow-water attack craft, and even light planes in devastating raids. In 2001, they destroyed 26 Sri Lankan aircraft on Colombo's tarmac in front of startled holidaymakers. They decimated an Indian force sent to keep peace, and assassinated former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in revenge at his interfering temerity.

In 2006, under the capable political leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a galvanized Sri Lankan state and army finally pushed back hard. None pushed harder than the president's brother. As defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa put steel in the gloves of the Sri Lankan defense forces. After years of hedging, and now under contract to build a billion dollar port in the island's south, China came to the party with cash, arms, expertise, and diplomatic cover in the U.N. Security Council. At Sri Lanka's request, Iran, Burma, and Libya followed up with varying packages of support. The gritty Gotabaya, a former Sri Lankan army colonel and U.S. passport-holder, shook up the officer corps, refined frontline tactics, and forged the defense forces into a unified fighting machine. Morale soared, and victory followed upon victory.

By January 2009 the army had bottled up the Tigers in a shrinking pocket on the northeast of the island, along with around 330,000 civilians. Foreign military observers I spoke with at the time continued to insist that the guerrillas were militarily unbeatable -- they were just too tough and resourceful to be defeated on the field of battle. Western leaders dutifully called for restraint and reminded the warring parties of their obligations under humanitarian law. Iran supplied oil, while China supplied easy credit, easing the Sri Lanka government's worries that material and cash-flow problems might collapse their strategy as they resisted diplomatic pressure. Sri Lanka cracked down on domestic opposition, gagged the press, and excluded foreign journalists and humanitarian workers. It assured U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that it was not using heavy weapons.

Troops fought doggedly in what was by all accounts a dreadful fight through marshland, scrub, and jungle. Artillery units pounded the Tiger front lines. By May, squeezed into an area the size of a few city blocks, Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was dead, and the few remaining Tigers were in captivity. Sri Lanka regained complete control of its coastline for the first time in close to 30 years. Officials in Colombo proclaimed that their "humanitarian rescue" of Tamil civilians was complete, and that nary a drop of innocent blood had been shed. Alone among the nations of the world, Sri Lanka had succeeded in "defeating terrorism."

So far so good. But a panel of senior international judicial experts appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September 2010 has just come to a vastly different conclusion. In a report released this week, the U.N. panel has in effect outlined a prima facie case for war crimes. It alleges that both sides caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in just the last five months of the war. The government is blamed for a majority of the killing, as it shelled the Tigers with long-range artillery.

The report describes what it calls the "systematic shelling of hospitals" and says that the government also withheld life-saving humanitarian aid from civilians being held hostage en masse by the Tigers. It allegedly ordered the execution of most of the captured senior Tiger leadership as they surrendered. Trophy videos of the torture and killing of other battlefield captives began to leak shortly after the victory. It appears that alongside the government's much vaunted "hostage rescue," one of the larger war crimes of this century was discreetly committed.

That the government allowed itself to stray into unlawful warfare on the cusp of victory is something of a mystery. The Tamil Tigers were a spent force. For two years, the army had driven the Tigers' lines back steadily across the breadth of the island, without causing a grossly disproportionate loss of civilian life. It had synchronized bombardments that drove civilians away from the front lines with the dispatch of small commando teams that sowed disorder in enemy territory. Drones pinpointed Tiger artillery and hovered over columns of retreating civilians.

The Sri Lankan navy deployed new tactics to combat the Tigers' "brown-water" capability. India and the United States shared intelligence that enabled frigates to intercept and sink a dozen merchant vessels en route to re-supply the guerrilla army. The Defense Ministry buffed up its press briefings with drone video and slick target justification presentations. Against the backdrop of the "global war on terror," a majority of nations were quietly glad that the Tigers were defeated. In a post-9/11 world, their aggressive and ingenious use of terrorist tactics in the name of national liberation, quite simply, set a bad example.

So what went wrong? The army tried with leaflets and radio bulletins to convince civilians to escape. Families, however, continued to weigh their chances of survival in favor of moving away from the front lines, rather than toward and through them. This no-brainer was helped in no small measure by the Tigers, who coaxed, assisted, and then gradually enforced the retreat of all civilians as a buffer against outright attack by the Sri Lankan army. The army made a difficult tactical problem worse when it bombarded self-declared "No-Fire Zones," killing thousands.

From around February 2009, the besieged pocket shrank until there was simply no room left. The Tigers' lines converged, funneling hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians onto a sandspit the size of New York City's Central Park. The army continued to bombard the bedraggled guerrilla lines that now backed onto civilian tents. Army incursions clawed tens of thousands of civilians from the siege zone, but with many "hostages" killed.

Since the war ended in May 2009, life has improved immeasurably for a majority of Sri Lankans, predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists who support President Rajapaksa. The government delivered a decisive victory, but whether it has delivered a durable peace, let alone any measure of justice to its Tamil minority, is quite another question. The release of the U.N. report is a "Srebrenica moment" for Sri Lanka, as the pieces of the crime scene fall into place. The same is true for humankind at large. What really happened in 2009, and will there be a war crimes tribunal for Sri Lanka?

The Tamil Tigers and their quarter-century fight were a direct result of anti-Tamil pogroms in 1983 that killed thousands. Modern counterinsurgency doctrine tries to win over a contended population, and to separate guerrillas from their constituents by delivering meaningful security and a better deal. Sri Lanka did things rather differently, and is touting its model of counterinsurgency without factoring in the true cost to civilian life or acknowledging that such brutality is hardly a formula for long-term peace. It is unlikely that the real price of the "Sri Lanka solution" will be on the agenda of the meeting in Colombo this May. The opinion of the U.N. panel is that the sheer scale of alleged crimes constitutes "a grave assault on the entire regime of international law." Hardly a formula for success.