The time for a strategic rethink at the Defense Department has arrived. It is signaled by the third straight year of declining defense budgets and the reality that the sequester will bring the defense budget down even more -- and more quickly than forecast.
Not surprisingly, these budget realities are stirring up the same sentiments that we encountered at the end of the Cold War. The defense community is beginning to search for ways to prevent what Colin Powell and Les Aspin called a "freefall" in the early Clinton years, when they were chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense, respectively. "Stability" is the defense community's new goal, and a more intense strategy review than the one Leon Panetta oversaw is what will get them there.
Last November, I flagged five think tank reports that rethink fundamental U.S. strategy to frame options for the forces and their budget. With Secretary Hagel's arrival and the beginning of the Quadrennial Defense Review, it's time to put that approach into practice.
The latest signal that we need to rethink America's defense missions comes from five former deputy secretaries of defense: John Deutch, John Hamre, John White, Rudy de Leon, and William Lynn. They sent Secretary Hagel a letter on March 5, urging him to take a page from the Aspin era and carry out a separate "Bottom Up Review," or BUR, of our defense posture. Their intentions are good, but adding another review to Hagel's agenda would seriously compound his difficulties in getting control over the Defense Department -- and it wouldn't necessarily focus attention on the areas that most need it.
Strategy and force posture are driven by shrinking resources. As strategist Bernard Brodie once put it: "strategy wears a dollar sign." The deputies urge the secretary to take a new look at the threats we face and specify the forces we need, the tempo at which they should operate, the level of readiness they should have, and the training equipment they need. But they put "the resources needed for the posture" at the end of their list of priorities, instead of at the beginning where it belongs in the current budget atmosphere. They are still locked into the blue sky world of defense planning -- we decide strategy first, then we worry about the money.
To be fair, they ask that the review present the secretary with a "range of postures" at different levels of cost and capability, which is something the Quadrennial Defense Review has never done. They point out that savings will take time, that the hard choices need to be made early, that terrorism and cyber should be priorities, and that the rising costs of pay and benefits are a growing problem for Pentagon planning. Perhaps most importantly, their proposed review incorporates a key principle: "More cannot be done with less."
That is a crucial observation, and it flies in the face of the endless, mindless chatter from many officials that the Pentagon will now have to do "more with less." Nobody is asking DOD to do more! As Iraq is forgotten (though see the excellent report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction on the many negative lessons learned from our invasion and occupation) and we leave Afghanistan, the fact is that we are asking the military to do "less with less."
But there are serious problems with the planning process they propose.
I was around for the BUR; I remember it well, as an OMB participant in the process. Secretary Aspin brought to the Pentagon a pre-formed idea about U.S. force posture, based on years of thinking and testimony before his House Armed Services Committee, and informed by the "base force" concept Chairman Powell had already begun. The goal was to shrink the force, but guided by a set of strategy considerations.