The United States will spend more than $265 billion on defense next year. That's more than five times as much as Russia will spend and nearly six times the combined military budgets of China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Sudan-countries generally thought to be our most likely

Yet it is not enough to pay for the weapons the Pentagon plans to buy over the next several years. Nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire, facing a dramatically changed threat, the military continues to be organized along the same Cold War lines and the Pentagon continues to buy the same kinds of weapons it has bought for decades. What's worse, many experts believe, is that the military is squandering an opportunity to transform itself to meet future challenges.

Consider the following:

  • The Pentagon is investing in three new fighter jets;one for the Air Force, another for the Navy, and a third to be shared by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The cost of the three new tactical aircraft programs is expected to exceed $300 billion. The Pentagon determined all three aircraft are critical, despite the United States' unrivaled air superiority.
  • This summer, the first Seawolf submarine was commissioned. The Pentagon had planned to build 30 of the subs, but President Bush canceled all but the first in 1992, arguing that at $2.4 billion a copy, the sub designed for war against the Soviet Union was too expensive and no longer necessary. Congress ordered two more subs anyway, to preserve the submarine industrial base long enough to begin work on the next sub program, the New Attack Submarine.
  • The Navy has begun building its next-generation aircraft carrier, despite widespread concern that carriers already are vulnerable to missile attack and destined to become an expensive relic of previous wars.

These investments come at a time when the United States faces no near-term threat to its status as the world's sole superpower. The Defense Department itself views this as a period of "strategic pause" when the United States is unlikely to face a major threat to its vital interests.

The investments also come at a time when the military is strapped for cash. Despite the reduced threat, U.S. troops are engaged around the globe from the Persian Gulf to Bosnia to Latin America and Africa. The high tempo of military operations has strained the Defense budget, including less glamorous weapons modernization accounts, to nearly the breaking point. And the ever-shrinking services are increasingly turning to reservists to accomplish their missions.

The high rate of deployments, coupled with service members' perceptions of eroding benefits and quality of life, also appear to be driving out the very people the military must retain to operate the advanced weapons systems it is purchasing. The Air Force, for example, expects to be short 350 pilots in 1998, and this past summer asked Congress to fund $20,000 bonuses to keep pilots in uniform.

'Day of Reckoning'

The Pentagon's investment priorities are detailed in the May 1997 report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Defense Department's latest internal assessment of military strategy, force structure and spending plans, which was mandated by Congress in 1996. This month, the independent National Defense Panel will weigh in with its own report, also ordered by Congress, on national security strategy and plans. While panel members say they expect to make far-reaching recommendations to improve the national security structure, panel chairman Phil Odeen, president of BDM International, told reporters he does not expect the panel will make recommendations regarding specific weapons systems.

"To its credit, the QDR acknowledges that the U.S. military will likely face very different challenges over the long-term than it does today," said panel member Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in a September speech at Texas A&M University.

But the QDR's conclusions are similar to the Bush Administration's 1991 Base Force plan, which was conducted when the Soviet Union still existed, and the 1993 Bottom-Up Review, which essentially proposed a smaller version of the Base Force plan.

Budget cuts seemed to be the driving force behind the QDR's modest recommendations for changes in force structure and modernization programs, not "the strategic imperative" to transform the military, said Krepinevich.

"In a period of major geopolitical and military-technical change, the defense debate seems dominated by consideration over how best to wage the last war more efficiently, as opposed to preparing to meet new challenges both efficiently and effectively," he said.

Most military planners and analysts believe the United States is at a critical juncture in history. In the absence of a major threat to U.S. national security, there is an unprecedented window of opportunity to transform the military to meet emerging challenges.

Yet by the Pentagon's own calculations, it cannot afford the weapons programs in its long-term plans without a substantial increase in modernization funding. The current annual modernization spending level of $45 billion is at least $15 billion short of what current plans call for. An October General Accounting Office analysis of the Defense Department five-year spending plan predicted "DoD's operating costs will continue to exceed program estimates, resulting in substantial unrealized weapons procurement early in the next century." Defense officials generally concurred with the report.

"As I see it, it's not the level of spending that's a problem," says one senior Pentagon official. "It's what we're spending money on. Clearly, we have aging aircraft and aging carriers and submarines;that needs to be addressed. But do we need three new fighters right now? Do we need more carriers and faster, quieter subs now? Even if we could afford it, and I believe we cannot, is the increased capability worth the cost? There's nobody out there who can touch us now. We have an opportunity to really explore new concepts and new technology and we find we can't afford to do it at the level we should be doing it because we're buying all this other stuff."

"We are approaching a day of reckoning," says Chris Hellman, a senior research analyst at the Center for Defense Information. "We're either going to see the cancellation of major weapons systems or we're going to start reneging on our commitments."

Defense officials hope to pay for current modernization plans by closing more bases and outsourcing more support functions. The Pentagon's proposals have not been warmly received on Capitol Hill, however. In addition to two more rounds of base closures, a proposition that has already been rejected by key members of Congress, the QDR recommended relying on private contractors to provide more maintenance, security and firefighting functions;all of which are currently mandated by Congress.

Defense Secretary William Cohen declined to be interviewed for this story, but in written answers to questions submitted by Government Executive, Cohen stressed the importance of reducing defense infrastructure.

"More clearly now than in the past, the department and Congress face hard choices about what is more important: keeping non-core support functions in government hands, or putting advanced technology in soldiers' hands; protecting an underused facility, or protecting overseas forces; preserving government contracts, or locking in re-enlistment contracts," Cohen said.

Technology Revolution

To be sure, the military today is not the same military the United States fielded during the Cold War. In 1989, the United States had 18 Army divisions, 15 aircraft carriers and 24 fighter wings on active duty. Today, there are 10 divisions, 11 carriers and 13 fighter wings in the active force. The number of troops on active duty has shrunk from about 2.1 million in 1989 to 1.5 million today.

The QDR determined that further significant reductions in the size of the force would jeopardize the military's ability to continue ongoing operations and respond to future contingencies.

"We concluded that radical reductions in the size of the force would risk undermining our ability today to shape the international environment and respond to crises and aggressors," Cohen said. "We also concluded that more immediate changes in the character of the force might compromise its resilience and flexibility in this coming period of uncertainty about the threat and revolution in the technology of warfare."

Most military analysts believe the United States is in the midst of a revolution in military affairs, a period where changes in communications and weapons systems will dramatically alter the way war is conducted in the future. To varying degrees, each of the services is exploring new technologies and warfighting concepts.

The 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, is the focal point of much of that exploration in the Army. Through a series of advanced experiments under its Force XXI program, the Army is incorporating digital technology across the battlefield to give soldiers access to greater amounts of tactical data than had previously been possible. The experiments allow the Army to test new organizational as well as technical concepts.

"The Army and the Marines are working very hard to figure out how to get the right information to the lowest level in our organization, without bombarding [troops], just giving them exactly what they need," says one Army staff officer. But the officer is disturbed by what he views as misplaced priorities at DoD's top levels as the agency explores new information technologies.

"If you go to the Joint Staff and say, 'I'd like to see all of the programs we have in effect to increase the situational awareness of theater commanders in a future war,' they'll lay it all out for you. We're building these information grids, these communications grids, the theater commander can just plug into it and if it's available at the CIA database he'll be able to get it. Now the squad leader on the street corner in Mogadishu, what have we done for him?

"We're focusing on the theater commander. Well, theater commanders don't get killed. Squad leaders get killed. Squad members get killed. That's where the Army and Marines believe you've got to put a lot more emphasis. Let's build our information systems to first meet all of those needs and work our way back. We're doing exactly the opposite," he says.

The services will need to move more than information on future battlefields, however. Col. Michael Starry, assistant deputy chief of staff at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, is responsible for the Army After Next Project, designed to help Army leaders craft a vision for the future. The speed with which U.S. forces can project power to future conflicts will be critical, he says.

Had the United States been able to move a large force to the Persian Gulf in a matter of days instead of months when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1991, the Gulf War might have ended in August, rather than February. To create such a joint expeditionary force, the military would need to be able to move troops and materiel must faster than is now possible.

The force Starry envisions could move the equivalent of five divisions' worth of personnel and equipment in seven days, something that would now take months to do. "It would provide a very sophisticated global maneuver and striking capability," he says.

The Navy, too, is concerned about increasing the pace of operations. "Speed of command" will be key to gaining the upper hand on the battlefield, says a senior Navy officer. Through the use of information technology and sensors, the Navy will be able to speed up dissemination of critical information, and in turn speed up command and control for increased operational effectiveness.

In a series of Battle Fleet Experiments, the Navy's 3rd Fleet has been testing the notion of moving away from platform-centric warfare to network-centric warfare, whereby a variety of platforms;both aircraft and ships;are linked into a single network, allowing for multiple weapons to be used quickly in a range of situations.

The Navy also has been experimenting with a range of technologies to reduce personnel levels on ships while maintaining combat readiness. The guided missile cruiser USS Yorktown is the platform for testing what have been dubbed "smart ship" technologies, that eventually will be used accross the fleet. The Navy anticipates saving as much as $2.8 million in reduced personnel and operations costs by implementing the technologies on the Yorktown.

Cmdr. Eric L. Sweigard, commanding officer of the Yorktown, said he was not entirely sold on the idea of cutting staff levels on ships until he served on the Yorktown. "I was used to a certain size crew and we kept those people very busy. I had concerns about the [reduced staffing] when I came aboard, but those have all evaporated," he says.

By cutting the weekly workload aboard the Yorktown by 30 percent, the Navy was able to reduce the ship's crew size from about 375 to 330.

Future Threats

Perhaps the single greatest challenge for military planners today is trying to anticipate what the future will look like in an increasingly fractured world, and what kind of force the United States will need to thrive in the long run.

In the autumn issue of the U.S. Army War College's journal Parameters, Air Force Col. Charles Dunlap writes, "All too often we underestimate opponents from disadvantaged nations even though there are many instances in history;Vietnam and Somalia being clear illustrations;where low-tech opponents successfully dealt with advanced technology wielded by well-trained troops of highly developed nations."

Dunlap believes technology will complicate the future battlefield, but not necessarily in the ways we anticipate. "Indeed, some militaries may abandon altogether equipment requiring highly skilled operators,manned aircraft for example,in favor of fully automated systems such as fire-and-forget missiles, or low-tech versions of the cruise missile: business jets on autopilot carrying a payload of biological agents."

The United States' preoccupation with achieving information superiority or dominance in future conflicts also is "unrealistic, even quixotic," he writes, given the level of information increasingly disseminated by the media and the military itself. "Savvy militaries will focus on developing doctrine and strategies for operating in an environment of information transparency or information parity."

Some analysts predict future conflicts will increasingly occur in urban areas, where the usefulness of precision weapons is limited and the challenges are vastly different from those for which most troops now train.

By 2020, the Marines estimate 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities, the great majority of which will be located along coastlines, the Marines traditional area of operations.

At the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico, Va., Marines are in the initial stages of "Urban Warrior," an 18-month experiment to test new tactics and doctrine as well as technologies for fighting in cities, says Col. Anthony Wood, director of the lab. Like the Army, the Marine Corps is concerned about the ability to push information to the lowest levels of the organization, typically small unit leaders or squad leaders, without overburdening them. A warfighting experiment last spring showed the need to better manage information at all levels of command. Toward that end, the lab has tested a revised staff configuration, called a "cellular command element," in an effort to provide the best information available to commanders at a given time.

At the same time, the lab created a program to help small unit leaders make decisions and filter information more efficiently. Called "Clear Thinking," the program is designed to help the leaders quickly recognize patterns, think critically and weigh risks, says Wood.

Wood and others like him throughout the services are at the heart of the revolution that could transform military operations in the future. Yet many are concerned that the Pentagon's current commitment to expensive weapons systems will tie up diminishing resources well into the future, precluding the dramatic change in military operations necessary to meet future challenges.

While the services' various warfighting experiments are critical if the military is to identify the systems, operational concepts, and organizational changes that will be required to sustain its competitive advantages, "one strains in vain to find a 'guiding hand' at work fashioning an overall transformation strategy," Krepinevich says.

"Given the time it takes to field new military systems, develop new doctrine, and field test new combat organizations," he says, "the U.S. military 20 years hence is already being formed,and limited.by decisions being made today."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec