The Pentagon's risky new assumptions
Last week, I discussed the release of the Pentagon's new strategic guidance, the document that attempts to explain how the U.S. military services and field commanders plan to cope with a $487 billion cut from their previous 10-year budget plan. Defense analysts now await the White House's detailed defense budget request, a document that is bound to contain a lot of unhappy news for Congress members and defense contractors. I noted last week that the strategic guidance implied substantial cuts to the Army and Marine Corps, implicitly accepting that the United States will no longer be able to send major deployments to two simultaneous crises. But that is just one of many risks the new guidance will force Pentagon planners to cope with.
The cuts to U.S. ground forces will necessarily increase the responsibilities borne by U.S. allies. The strategic guidance discusses the Pentagon's "plan to operate whenever possible with allied and coalition forces." In addition, the document emphasizes the importance of providing security force assistance to build the capacity of partner forces. The authors of the new strategy are counting on this assistance to help fill in for reduced U.S. forces in the future. In reality, however, traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere continue to cut rather than increase their military capacities. Recent U.S. "coalitions of the willing" did produce contributions from many countries, but the majority of these contributions were militarily insignificant. Future U.S. security crises might matter even less to U.S. allies, which will be reluctant to provide significant troop contributions. Planning for allies to do the work previously done by now-furloughed U.S. soldiers is a risk.
In his rollout of the new strategy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for U.S. forces to be "more agile, flexible, [and] innovative" as a way of compensating for reduced numbers. But what does it mean precisely to be more agile, flexible, and innovative? Can Panetta and his staff point to specific indicators of agility or flexibility that his forces cannot achieve now but could under different conditions? What training, leadership, or equipment is required to achieve these undefined higher levels of agility and flexibility? Without a more detailed description, it sounds more like sloganeering than a strategy. Panetta and others may express a desire to more rapidly shift forces around the globe in response to crises, but U.S. forces face an increasing challenge of denied access from adversary missiles, a fundamental threat the new strategy is supposed to address. Until the Pentagon resolves the anti-access challenge, improved strategic mobility is itself another problem, rather than a solution to a problem of reduced troop numbers.
The strategic guidance discusses the idea of "reversibility," or retaining the military's ability to reconstitute forces in response to crises. The report describes plans to retain larger numbers of field-grade officers and sergeants in the Army and Marine Corps to accommodate rapid reconstitution of previously shuttered formations. The strategy also discusses an updated role for reserve forces to reconstitute needed combat units. Although these are sensible preparations, in the past it has usually taken two years or more for the U.S. military to fully adapt to major strategic shocks. This is the typical amount of time a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon needs to comprehend a new adversary and its tactics, accept that the new challenge differs significantly from those forecast in prewar plans, and then overcome the bureaucratic hurdles needed to design and implement effective responses. The new strategic guidance may hope to speed up this timeline, but simply assuming it will go faster next time is a risk.
The impending defense cuts increase stress for Pentagon planners because they reduce the margin of error they will have to work with. Possessing redundancy and safety margins of troops, equipment, and bases seems wasteful, even more so during a budget crisis. Getting the new strategic guidance to work during a future crisis will mean hoping that the new planning assumptions come true and that Murphy's Law doesn't strike too often. U.S. military history shows that "planning for perfection" rarely turns out well.