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Problems with Current U.S. Policy.

Key Problems

* U.S. military strategy has not come to terms with the end of the cold war. The inconsistency between declared priorities and actual demands puts strain on the armed forces that is not warranted, given the vastly reduced threats.

* Today's armed forces and their modernization plans are not well-suited to the future.

* Maintaining the current military and equipping it as planned will cost substantially more in the future than today.

Current U.S. defense policy is hampered by an outdated strategy, outdated forces, and budget pressures.

Outdated Strategy

Press reports indicate that the Bush administration will cast off the two-war concept, a move in the right direction. Clinton strategy declared that preparing to fight in two major theater wars at about the same time was the military's number one priority, even if armed forces were engaged in humanitarian interventions, peacekeeping operations, or other actions. This inconsistency between actual military operations and declared priorities put substantial strain on the armed forces.

President Bush promised during the 2000 election campaign to reduce day-to-day demands on the military. To date, however, the focus for potential reductions has been to avoid new humanitarian missions and to withdraw troops from the Balkans. Neither the administration nor Congress has suggested lowering deployments to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, which account for about three-quarters of U.S. armed forces rotated overseas; reducing troops stationed in Europe and Asia; or cutting back on the military's exercise of diplomacy. These operations--and probably new ones that even President Bush will find impossible to avoid--seem here to stay.

Furthermore, today's conventional forces are larger than needed for the potential conflicts with North Korea and Iraq that justified the two-war "building blocks" a decade ago. Supporting today's economically strong and militarily capable South Korea against the weakened North would likely require about half the forces currently envisioned for one war. Similarly, prevailing against today's Iraq, weakened by the Gulf War, daily no-fly patrols, and a decade of economic sanctions would take substantially fewer units than the Pentagon claims.

Acknowledging the mismatch between armed forces and realistic missions, the Defense Department in recent years developed a concept of "overmatch," requiring U.S. forces to be much stronger than actually needed to defeat likely threats. Many observers would agree that the U.S. should have such an insurance policy for one war, but maintaining two such insurance policies is unnecessarily expensive. Moreover, exaggerating the size of the forces needed to fight and win against realistic enemies distorts the estimation of U.S. military capability needs.

Outdated Forces

After the cold war ended, the U.S. reduced its conventional force structure. But the remaining forces look like a shrunken version of their cold war predecessors. One reason is that decisionmakers never changed the cold war pattern for dividing the defense budget among the military branches. Current plans for equipping the military also bear a strong resemblance to those of the cold war. Several systems planned during the cold war have been canceled, but almost every major item in today's plans had been part of Pentagon shopping lists during the cold war.

If the focus of Bush security policy tilts toward Asia, as most observers believe it will, then breaking out of the cold war balance between military branches is crucial. For example, in coming to Taiwan's assistance in a cross-strait conflict, American air and sea power would be more useful than ground forces. The forces the Defense Department envisions for major theater wars are quite unsuited--and vastly oversized in the ground component--for such a scenario.

Furthermore, within its various branches, the armed forces are not properly configured or equipped for many of the jobs they are asked to do. For example, the Army has too few of the specialized units that participate repeatedly in peace operations; its structure and rotation policies exacerbate the problems of restoring readiness after such operations. The Air Force expressed concern after Kosovo that reconnaissance and air defense suppression units were stretched thin. And the Navy lacks the integrated capabilities it needs to track and destroy diesel-electric submarines in the shallow coastal waters where it expects to fight in the future. These problems are all symptomatic of a wider ill: the military has not restructured or sufficiently modified its equipment plans to handle the real missions it faces.

Given the striking changes in the world during the past decade and the rapid advances in technologies for weapons, sensors, navigation, and communications, it would be an astonishing coincidence if the strategy appropriate to the new environment truly required the same allocation of resources, the same military units in the same proportions, and the same equipment as was developed for the cold war. Keeping forces that no longer make sense and holding onto inherited equipment plans reduce resources available for addressing new international security issues. More critically, it fosters a business-as-usual attitude that stifles much-needed innovation and creativity in every aspect of military affairs.

Budget Pressures

Keeping today's armed forces at their present size and outfitting them with the equipment the Defense Department plans to buy will cost tens of billions of dollars more in future years than the current $310 billion. Rising weapons costs, pressure for added pay and benefits for military and civilian personnel and retirees, and the growing costs of administration and infrastructure will swell the price tag of maintaining the current force structure. Adding money for Bush priorities like national missile defense will further increase the upward pressure.

The Pentagon has hoped for years to offset cost growth by reforming processes for material acquisition and by seeking efficiencies in infrastructure activities such as base operations, logistics, and health care. Such reforms are critical, but such proposals typically meet with strong opposition from military leaders reluctant to consolidate functions or break traditions, from communities and business leaders wary of economic impacts, from military families concerned about changing the structure of pay and benefits, and from members of Congress desiring to protect their districts. Overcoming such opposition requires civilian leaders to exercise enormous political will.

Moreover, even when political obstacles are overcome, savings are often not as large as anticipated. Unfortunately, the savings that can realistically be achieved through acquisition and infrastructure reforms will fall far short of averting budget growth. Other miracle cures often recommended--e.g., further reducing nuclear forces or sharing the defense burden with allies--are similarly unlikely to hold defense spending in check.

The administration can resolve this issue by increasing defense budgets. But the president clearly has other priorities for projected surpluses: reducing taxes and debt, overhauling Medicare and providing prescription drug coverage for the nation's neediest elderly, privatizing Social Security, and improving education.

Cindy Williams <cindywil@MIT.EDU>, formerly Assistant Director for National Security at the Congressional Budget Office, is Senior Research Fellow of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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Article Details
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Author:Williams, Cindy
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Date:May 29, 2001
Previous Article:Holding the Line: U.S. Defense Strategy.
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