This week, Chuck Hagel left no doubt.
In a major address in Washington, our country’s secretary of defense spelled out in clear language how the years of budget cuts that lie ahead will require hard choices and, in the end, are likely to change the military in significant ways.
Hagel described his set of general guideposts.
Troop levels will fall. The military will shift to a considerable degree toward smaller, more nimble forces, with less focus on garrison forces.
Reserve forces will continue to play major roles. The Pentagon will make robust investments in areas including space, cyber and special operations.
And to make that transition the military will probably implement temporary reductions in combat readiness for a considerable chunk of our forces.
The federal government’s budget realities leave Hagel and other decision-makers no choice but to plan for major contingencies.
As Hagel noted, the basic challenge of implementing budget cuts is difficult enough, but Congress and the White House make the problem far worse by failing to provide budget predictability.
As the Washington politicians drone endlessly on the TV screen but make no serious effort to break the budget impasse, the real-world consequences are being felt worldwide by our military through cutbacks that have arrived more abruptly and violently than was necessary.
Sequestration abruptly chopped off 8 percent of the military during the past fiscal year, and from now through 2021 the defense budget will be held to around its 2007 level.
The problem is that given the military’s steeply rising costs on everything from weapons systems to health care, a 2007-sized budget doesn’t come close to buying a 2007-sized force level, and the challenge will worsen over time. Hence the unavoidable choices outlined by Hagel.
That said, it would be mistaken to think that our military is about to see a precipitous collapse. Even with the upcoming cuts, the U.S. military will remain the planet’s most capable fighting force.
Given the budgetary circumstances, the approach outlined by the former Nebraska senator seems relatively practical. Foreign Affairs journal just published a comprehensive analysis of defense-budget options, and the findings indicate that, if ably managed, several of the key ideas put forward by Hagel (and discussed widely in the defense community) should be achievable.
Consider the continued reliance on reserves. “When deployed, reserve forces cost as much as active-duty ones,” the Foreign Affairs analysis says, “but in peacetime, they cost just a fraction of their full-time counterparts. ... If the reserve forces were kept at their current sizes, the army could retain about 150,000 more soldiers across its total force than if the reserves were cut in lockstep with the active component.”
As for combat readiness, the Foreign Affairs article notes that the Army and Navy have already been experimenting with selective reductions in readiness.
And overall, the article says, “keeping the entire force ready for war at a moment’s notice costs money that could be better spent elsewhere, and there are good reasons to give up some near-term mission readiness in exchange for keeping more forces or building more equipment. If planned and targeted, reductions in readiness could avoid major disruptions and serve strategic purposes.”
Which isn’t to say any of this will be easy. Plus, there are specific pitfalls to avoid.
The Foreign Affairs analysis explains, for example, that the Army’s downsizing after the Cold War produced a major shortage of mid-level officers by the early 2000s, and that in turn led to a much-ridiculed decision for mass promotions of captains to majors, with complaints of weakened promotion standards.
Americans will disagree about what form the upcoming defense cuts should take. But on one thing there should be no disagreement: Our leaders can’t avoid making hard choices.