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Myth Dealers

In an uncertain world ... and 4 other ‘truths' America's generals want to sell you.

Last week, the Joint Chiefs of Staff made their fifth appearance as a group before Congress during this budget cycle to again sound the alarm about the effects of the Budget Control Act and sequestration on military readiness. As they have tried doing repeatedly, the four service chiefs highlighted the costs to carrier battle group availability, combat-ready air wings, and pre-deployment training for soldiers and Marines. Three of the chiefs explicitly warned that reduced readiness would result in additional casualties if the military were deployed to fight in an emergency contingency tomorrow. As Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno stated bluntly: "We're at the lowest readiness levels in our Army since I have been serving for 37 years."

If you recall the contentious Army readiness debates in the late-1990s-with the carefully scrutinized "C" ratings and mission-capable rates, this is a remarkable statement. Unfortunately, for the chiefs, their sensible requests for budgetary certainty will likely go unanswered as fiscal conservatives have clearly and perhaps permanently gained the upper hand over traditional defense hawks.

The constrained defense budgets, ending of the Iraq war, and forthcoming troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has led to soul searching among senior defense leaders about what missions and capabilities the U.S. military should pursue. The Pentagon has tried to do this in a structured way with the Defense Strategic Guidance of January 2012, the Strategic Choices and Management Review of August 2013, and the Quadrennial Defense Review process currently underway. Defense planning for a relative peacetime environment is difficult enough, but doing so with uncertain budget scenarios is especially challenging. As Jamie Morin, the nominee to become director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, told a Senate hearing last month, the military is doing future years defense planning "with absolutely no idea what we're going to be doing in 2014."

And yet, senior defense leaders seem to have few problems articulating a vision for what sort of military the United States requires for the future. A careful review of their recent comments reveals five particular assumptions that are rarely questioned by Congress, the media, or many defense analysts. These assumptions about the military's future are worth bearing in mind during upcoming congressional hearings, and as Congress and the White House agree upon the latest overdue defense budget.

1. The Earth has reached peak uncertainty. Earlier this year, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey declared "the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been." Dempsey has since tweaked this absolutist characterization to a world of an "even more uncertain and dangerous security landscape."  Last week, General Ray Odierno (b. 1954) further declared: "I believe that this is the most uncertain I've ever seen the international security environment." Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has even gone so far as to claim: "We are living in a world of complete uncertainty." This goes too far, for if there is really no ground truth or predictability in the world, how can the Pentagon begin to develop the concepts, scenarios, or force planning constructs that defense planning is based upon?

2. The military's future is in the Asia-Pacific. Although, as I detailed previously, military leaders recognize they have a terrible record at predicting future instability and conflicts, they are gambling that they will get it right this time. During his confirmation hearings, Secretary Hagel forecasted: "as we look at future threats and challenges ... that's why DOD is rebalancing its resources toward the Asia-Pacific region." The secretary recently elaborated that the rebalance "was exactly the right thing for all the reasons that anybody who knows anything about Asia -- the demographics, the people, the markets, the economies." Hagel's deputy Ashton Carter has described that region as "so obviously a part of the world that will be central to America's future," and "the part of the world that is going to more than any other define the American future." The Asia pivot or rebalance has become the preeminent rhetorical feature of the Obama administration's foreign policy, even as its specific lines of effort remain underdeveloped.

3. Future fights will be cyber, drone, and special operations-centric. Defense planning documents and senior civilian or military officials emphasize that warfighting will primarily be conducted by packets of data and robots, or by special operators when humans are absolutely necessary. In his farewell address in February, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stressed: "Cybersecurity is something we've got to really be concerned about, because it is the weapon of the future." Hagel has similarly termed cyber as "probably the most insidious, dangerous threat to this country," which "will require that we continue to place the highest priority on cyber defense and cyber capabilities." Likewise, Carter described this suite of stand-off capabilities as "so important to our future operations." It is remarkable that defense leaders, who acknowledge an inability to forecast future conflicts, claim to hold a remarkable prescience about what weapons will be required to fight unidentifiable foes. 

4. The military is largely done with land wars. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. James Winnefeld asserted that while the military will need ground forces, "if nothing more than as a deterrent ... we don't see [land wars] as being a long fight. We can't afford it." Another senior defense official stated at a Pentagon briefing: "We don't envision doing large-scale, multi-year stability operations." Meanwhile, Gen. Odierno has repeatedly emphasized that those claiming land wars are obsolete are fooling themselves: "I see nothing on the horizon yet that tells me that we don't need ground forces." Given that every president since Ronald Reagan has deployed several thousand ground troops for regime change or multi-year stability operations, it would be accepting tremendous risk to discount Odierno's prescient warning.

5. Partners and allies will pick up the slack. It has become a matter of faith that reductions in U.S. defense commitments abroad will be met by allies willing to "share the responsibilities of global leadership," as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Michael Sheehan put it. Through the rotational presence of U.S. troops and joint exercises, and the military's "building partnership capacity" activities, there is an assumption that U.S. allies will shoulder more of the burden for their own security and that of their regions. This, of course, assumes that U.S. partners will remain partners, and continue to act in alignment with U.S. national interests. Moreover, it assumes that they will foot the bill for collective security, when in reality the percentage of American and its allies' military spending is projected to continue falling, as this chart demonstrates.

What is perhaps most unsettling the Pentagon's defense planning process is not only the absence of budget predictability from Congress, but also the lack of an updated National Security Strategy from the White House. That document serves as the reference point for national security priorities for all U.S. government agencies. Spend time with military officials and their staffs and they can all quote from memory those sections that guide the offices where they work. The five assumptions detailed above require further scrutiny from interested citizens, but they also deserve clarifying guidance from the Hill and White House.  

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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