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The Pentagon's Ten-Percent Solution

The sequester isn't a problem if you know what to cut.

Three years ago, I advanced the argument in a Foreign Policy article that the defense budget should -- and could, without endangering the republic -- be cut by 10 percent annually for several years before leveling out. As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made clear on July 31, this is now precisely what is happening. Well, not exactly. My preference was, and is, for reductions to be made more selectively than by the meat-axe methods of sequestration. Hagel and his advisors intend to operate more flexibly, too; that is, they want to be allowed to make choices between what they call "capacity" and "capability." This more deliberative approach, Hagel hopes, will govern the roughly $500 billion of across-the-board defense budget cuts that are currently scheduled to unfold over the next 10 years.

By "capacity cuts," the Hagel team -- which conducted a comprehensive internal strategic review this past spring -- means basically numbers. Of troops, tanks, ships, planes, and so on. "Capability cuts" refer to quality-oriented matters, ranging from modernization of weapons, transport, and information systems to expanding capabilities in such key areas as special operations and cyberwar. The underlying sense of the review is that the U.S. military now confronts something of a zero-sum situation: Holding on to capacity means sacrificing capability; emphasizing capability requires loss of capacity. The example that Hagel cited last week entailed having to mothball three aircraft carriers to create budgetary space for further investment in force modernization.

One can easily grasp how these grim calculations work, at least in a rough sense. Keeping current authorized active-duty servicemember levels at a total of about 1.5 million overall means continuing to bear a roughly $250 billion annual personnel cost on the books (around 40 percent of the current defense budget). In the face of looming real spending reductions of $50 billion per year, this inevitably means that something has to give on the systems side of the equation. Conversely, keeping a very expensive procurement program in place -- like the F-35 fighter plane, with production costs of about $400 billion, and even more in operations and maintenance -- imposes pressure to reduce troop levels. This is how the Hagel team has put the matter to the American people -- perhaps in the hope of gaining an exemption that would curtail continuing defense spending cuts. 

But the "10 percent solution" should be considered more carefully, each element separately. It is important to weigh capacity, in terms of troop numbers, as a factor in its own right -- not as locked in reverse synchrony with modernization. In fact, reducing active-duty forces is a good idea on its own merits. Why? Because small units have already become greatly empowered by existing smart weapons. Because, in countering insurgencies or terrorist networks, the key is not numbers but knowledge. And because, even in large engagements, nimbler and more networked forces can make mincemeat of big enemy formations. For those who want to fight massive, old-style opponents more traditionally, the cost-saving, hedging strategy is to move heavy units more and more into Reserve and National Guard formations. If they're needed for a reprise of World War II, there will be plenty of warning time to mobilize them.

The pattern of active-duty force reductions has been ongoing for many decades. In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, the U.S. armed services reduced manpower by 40 percent, from 3.5 to 2.1 million active servicemembers. In the wake of the Cold War, another third went away, taking the number down to 1.4 million. The efficiencies of information-age technologies and the prevalence of small wars suggest an ability to reduce the overall force yet again. This is simply in line with a steady trend. And it's not only true for the U.S. military: The Russians and the Chinese have also been steadily reducing their overall active-duty numbers as well.

Beyond independent treatment of such capacity issues as personnel numbers, there is good reason to consider capability matters separately as well. Here the trade-off should not be seen as between technologies and troops, but as between competing technologies. For example, as early as last year Sen. John McCain offered up an alternative to the cost-overrun-ridden new Ford-class aircraft carriers coming into production: Extend the life of the Nimitz-class. The Fords use the same hull, anyway. And there is much debate about the future of the super carrier, what with its growing vulnerability to supersonic anti-ship missiles, smart sea mines, and supercavitation torpedoes. The point is that not all investment in new systems is created equal, and major expenditures in areas of diminishing returns -- like big aircraft carriers -- should be viewed with much skepticism. Cancelling the Fords would save well over $100 billion.

Even absolutely cutting-edge new systems should come under some scrutiny -- in this instance, from the perspective of what I like to call "technology strategy." The F-35 is a case in point here. This aircraft will, when produced, be, by far, the most advanced in the world. But is it needed? Since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has had only one fighter plane shot down by an enemy jet. Is the need for a new one compelling, or can we stretch out the edge currently enjoyed without having to spend a trillion dollars we don't have -- counting production, operations, and maintenance costs? At least we may not have to spend this staggering amount yet. Indeed, with the increasing capability of "off-boresight" weapons -- missiles that can be shot from a plane at angles different from its direction of flight -- the need for the very latest new jet is truly diminished.

There are many other systems that can be similarly examined. Does the Navy need to spend tens of billions on a ship designed to fight in coastal waters the aluminum superstructure of which will burn to the waterline when (inevitably) it is hit by an anti-ship weapon? Is it necessary to spend tens of billions on a new generation of nuclear weapons at a time when deep cuts in arsenals -- even their verifiable abolition -- are under active consideration? The need now is to consider these matters on their own merits, without being needlessly tied to personnel cuts or other capacity issues. That said, reducing the active forces should also be seen as a matter worthy of independent consideration -- not simply as a required sacrifice that would then give the green light for greater weapons spending.

As ham-handed as sequestration is, the basic idea of steady, real cuts in defense spending has great merit. Not only will a smaller defense burden help with economic recovery; declining budgets will also foster more critical analysis of needs and encourage innovation in the military-industrial sector. And in the end, we are likely to find that keeping defense spending on "automatic pilot" feeds a dangerous complacency about military and security affairs in our time -- and in years to come. Sequestration -- and hopefully a smarter, more flexible version of it -- will enforce the 10 percent solution we need while at the same time pointing out that defense is not just a zero-sum numbers game.  

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