Sunday, January 08, 2012

Trimming Defense

Disclaimer: I am a veteran of 23 years of military service, and am now employed by a defense contractor to support a set of offices in the Pentagon.

With Congress scrambling to figure out how to keep spending lots of money at the same time it slashes the budget, the search is on for the proverbial low-hanging fruit ... the things that can be cut from the budget with the least amount of political pain. One of the places these cuts are often sought is in the military budget, which is - admittedly - enormous, and which can probably use some judicious trimming.

But where do you trim, and how, and what is the real savings you get when balanced against the risks you take?

When the so-called Supercommittee (the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) last year failed miserably in its mission to trim billions of dollars from the federal budget (because Democrats wouldn't cut social programs and Republicans wouldn't consider raising taxes), it started the clock ticking on a set of mandatory cuts to the budget which would begin in 2013 (safely after the presidential election). The vast majority of those cuts would come from the defense budget, which is always an easy target.

Let's talk about the whole subject of defense, shall we?

The preamble to the Constitution states that one of the purposes of the new government was to provide for the common defense. The Founders knew they were living in a dangerous world, and that an army and a navy were important to protecting the independence of the new nation. But they were, as we are today, conflicted about the desirability of maintaining a large standing army. They'd just fought a war against a king who deployed a huge, professional army against citizens seeking redress of their grievances, and were tired of being forced to care for an army viewed not as a means of protection, but as a means of coercion. A mark of the Founders' concern about the domestic role of the military appears in the Bill of Rights: the third amendment states that "No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law." And federal law, in the so-called posse commitatus act (18 USC I 67, Section 1385) forbids the government from using the Army "except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress" to enforce domestic law.

In our own recent history, we saw President Hoover deploy the Army to clear the peaceful protesters of the Bonus Army from the streets of Washington in 1932, and today we see armies in places like Syria and Libya used not for defense against external threats, but as instruments of repression.

Yes, we Americans have a love-hate relationship with the military, and it's one of the biggest genes in our national DNA, along with the worship of firearms (but that's a subject for another time).

So, when it comes time to reduce the federal budget, the military is hard-wired into our thinking as a prime target. The question becomes not, do we need an Army (and Navy, and Air Force) but how big ought those services be?

The Department of Defense spends a great deal of time and effort wrestling with this question, and the long and tortured history of Quadrennial Defense Reviews, blue-ribbon panels, study groups, Congressional hearings, and similar things is far too long and complex to summarize here. Suffice it to say that a lot of voices are heard when we try to decide how large our military should be: The President (who is, under the Constitution, the Commander in Chief of the armed forces), the Congress (whose members have a vested interest in protecting military spending in their own districts), the Department of Defense (which has to come up with an affordable strategy to counter the most probable threats), the individual Services (which each have their own priorities for manpower and weaponry based on their warfighting strategies), and ... of course ... the defense industry, the so-called military-industrial complex warned about by President Eisenhower (himself a retired four-star general) in 1961.

No doubt about it ... a strong military is expensive. The money spent on a single tank, aircraft, or naval ship could fund hospitals, schools, or important public services in many places for years. But is that money wasted?

Consider the economic impact: The enormous defense budget and the military-industrial complex it supports provides employment for millions of Americans (yours truly included). With a rate of unemployment remaining stubbornly over eight percent, tossing tens of thousands of military personnel and others employed in defense industries into an economy that can't find jobs for the people already there doesn't seem like a particularly good idea, at least in the short term.

Consider also the fact that we still live in a dangerous world. The threat of a global cataclysm on the order of World War II is pretty remote, as is the threat of nuclear war. We've withdrawn from Iraq and are on the way to disengaging from Afghanistan. But the world is still full of those who would do us ill, and not all of them are rational thinkers. Would you like your future to depend on the whims of a Mahmoud Ahmedinejad or an Hugo Chavez?

So what am I trying to say with all this bloviation?

Just this: we need to trim back our defense spending. But we need to do it rationally and not all at once, which would just make our current economic problems that much worse. If Bilbo were President (God help us!), here are a few things he would recommend (because, as we've seen, Presidents aren't empowered to do much of anything on their own):

1. Close all military facilities in Europe and bring back all forces to bases in the United States. The Europeans can worry about their own defense...there is no particular reason for keeping significant forces in Europe more than 70 years after the end of the Second World War.

2. Close all military facilities in Japan and South Korea and rebase the forces in the United States. It will save money, stop giving North Korea an excuse (however bogus) for its ludicrous and dangerous geopolitical antics, and remove part of China's excuse for the massive expansion of its military.

3. Invest in a strong, homeland-based Navy and Air Force for immediate power projection.

4. Refocus the Army away from large battlefield formations to a structure based on special operations forces. The likelihood of fighting a major ground war against a large land army is pretty remote, compared to the likelihood of having to fight the al Qaedas of the world.

5. Reduce the number of general and flag officers in the armed services by about half. Although the direct savings in pay may be modest, each GO/FO (Pentagon shorthand for general officer/flag officer) has an expensive support tail of secretaries, executive officers, aides, and office real estate that makes his (or her) cost considerably larger than pay alone, and consumes manpower resources that could be more profitably used elsewhere.

Most of my military friends would think I'm nuts for advocating most of these things, but I think they're all reasonable, even though the devil will remain lurking in the details. There's only so much money to spend, and we need to spend it wisely.

We have a responsibility to provide for the common defense, after all.

What are your thoughts?

Have a good day. Thank a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine for being free to have it.

More thoughts tomorrow, when we return to our discussion of the Constitution.



Duckbutt said...

I think that your suggestions as to how to trim the military are reasonable; but you're in a considerably more informed vantage point than I am.

I have (or had) a concern for a while regarding the military's ability to meet several crises: if we have military assets committed in Iraq and Afghanistan (and some of the other 'stans), will we also have the capability of responding to one from Iran or North Korea or some other crisis to emerge in the future. Right now, Europe seems stable; but the Balkans looked quite less so during the Clinton administration. And some mischief originating there causes World War I.

Having severl home-based fleets with aircraft carriers can project military power. As a bonus, they positively impact the local economies. Conversely, base reorganization plans do have a major impact on certain localities.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

The bases that we have in Europe have lost their reason for being, in my perception. Probably the ones in Asia too -- but the North Koreans and the Chinese can change the atmosphere at any time.

I'm somewhat abashed at how clueless I am about the military, given that there are two very large bases nearby. The soldiers that I've met are as bright as their civilian counterparts. However, the military is unfortunately portrayed in a negative light that is almost comic bookish. I find Beetle Bailey to be too much even if you suspend disbelief.

The big thing should be: will our military be prepared for the type of conflict that might conceiveably develop in the future?

Mike said...

6. Have everyone in the country do some form of national service after high school.

Big Sky Heidi said...

Could the National Guard or reserves be a way of developing military preparedness while reducing the costs of having a large standing professional military establishment?

Bilbo said...

Duckbutt - I agree that the Balkans are a source of instability, but I view it as a European, not an American problem. And base realignments can either be a wrenching problem or a golden opportunity for communities, depending upon how they are handled.

Angelique - you've hit on the root of the problem: predicting the types of conflicts coming in the future and the size of the force required to deal with them. The Defense Department spends huge amounts of time and money trying to answer those questions in a way the country can afford.

Mike - I agree with you, but somehow I think today's spoiled Americans would view any form of national service as an infringement of their rights.

Heidi - That is, in fact, the purpose of the Reserves. The National Guard belongs to the individual states, and are commanded by the state Governors...they have to be mobilized by the President to be used as part of the national forces.

Anonymous said...

I know you're an old fly boy, but I have to question the need for a separate air force when we have an Army with an air arm, and a Marine Corps with an air arm, and a Navy with an enormous air arm. Cannot the assets of the present air force be divided up and thus we can be relieved some defense costs there?

Bilbo said...

Bannister - your point's well-taken, but there really is only one full-time, all purpose Air Force. The Army flies a large fleet of helicopters for air assault and direct battlefield support; the Marines have a modest air arm as part of their "Marine Air-Ground Task Force" organization; and the Navy has its carrier-based air arm (which is useful for projecting power forward in areas where the US has no bases). I would agree with you (heresy!!) that there should be some consolidation of roles and missions among the air arms of the other Services and the Air Force, but this is unlikely to happen for a wide range of philosophical and budgetary reasons. Good observation, though. Sounds like the makings of a good future post...