Posted by: arbeam | January 28, 2014

The State of Defense

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 10, 2013) Ships from the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 10, 2013) Ships from the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group

Heading into 2014, the state of defense is solidly ill-defined and in flux.

And the brass knows it.

Just about every top military leader has at once touted U.S. military dominance while warning that politics and spending cuts are hollowing out the forces. Now, there’s little clarity about what to do with those forces after the wars. If the message of 2013 was budget uncertainty, the message of 2014 seems to be mission uncertainty. The war in Afghanistan is finally ending. What comes next?

On one hand, there’s the United States military that’s the best-equipped, trained and ready to fight in world history. On the other hand is a military that, if you listen to Pentagon leaders and the national security echo chamber, is constantly telling Congress and the American people that the United States faces a state of dire emergency, under-funded, under-manned, under-equipped for the global security mandate it’s been given.

If past is prologue, just look at how the Pentagon closed out 2013 before you try and read into 2014. Despite demands that a post-2014 troop deal for Afghanistan be in place by the end of the year, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai – a U.S. ally, mind you – says he won’t sign it. Like many Americans, Karzai is questioning why U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan after 13 years of war. And when proof emerged that Syrian President Bashir al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, President Barack Obama couldn’t get enough support to launch a military strike against him.

Talk about war weariness.

The top military officer and senior military advisor to the president says the country needs a conversation to define “the purpose of the military.” He’s right.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos is promising Congress that he will maintain that service as America’s on-call, ready to roll, anytime, anywhere emergency force with tens of thousands fewer troops and billions fewer dollars. But if sequester hits again and the Marines are called to just a single contingency fight, there will be no Marines left behind to rotate in and out of that conflict.

Meanwhile, the Navy publicly shrunk its ship requirement to 300 ships and says it’s ready to push Obama’s pivot to the Pacific. But privately you can’t throw a pebble into the Pentagon food court without hitting an admiral who thinks the Navy would need 900 ships to do everything defense leaders expect of the Navy on paper.

So which is it – can the Pentagon be on call, any time, ready to roll? Or is the military facing one of the biggest reality deficits with its civilian leaders since they rolled into Iraq with shock and awe in mind but got quag and mire, instead?

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told officers at the National Defense University this month: “I’m going to increase my commitment to have a conversation with our national leaders and the American people about the purpose of the military, not only in times of war but in peacetime as well.” Hear that? The top military officer and senior military advisor to the president says the country needs a conversation to define “the purpose of the military.” He’s right.

Dempsey, who carries laminated photos of soldiers he lost under his command in the Iraq war, has reason to re-examine how the military should be used in the next era. One purpose: to train other countries to fight their own battles so that the U.S. doesn’t have to.

Take Syria. Dempsey leads many officers who have given Obama options for using the military to save Syria. The top option to date: stay out of it. At the Pentagon, the policy is containment. As long as Syria’s conflict remains within Syria, no Americans should get in the way. No U.S. boots on that ground. Instead, Dempsey and others offer up training and equipment for some rebels and focused on shoring up the borders of Turkey and Jordan.

Take Fallujah. Al-Qaeda fighters recently took the Iraqi city that U.S. forces twice fought so hard to secure. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who commanded the Iraq war, said the U.S. should “wait and see” what Iraqis can do to retake Fallujah before any Americans are sent back to the fabled sandbox.

The Pentagon hasn’t entirely lost its taste for intervention. Five years ago, when the Pentagon stood up a dedicated Africa Command, the U.S. swatted away concerns of the “militarization” of Africa. But the U.S. has positioned additional forces closer to Africa and is involved in more countries there than ever. From small bands of advisors to rapid reaction forces, the past year saw U.S. Marines in Uganda, soldiers in South Sudan and Air Force cargo planes moving French fighters in Mali. This month, the U.S. flew Rwandan troops and equipment from Uganda into the Central African Republic.

There’s the U.S. military that spends twice as much as every Asian military combined, but then there’s the one that we’re told is dangerously fielding the smallest number of ships since World War II. The one with the most and most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, or the one with the most aging fleet that desperately needs a new plan to replace dozens of aircraft with something other than the trillion-dollar catchall F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. There’s the military that is building cyber defense forces slower than it needs, or the one that’s building M-1 Abrams tanks it doesn’t want.

There’s the military that spent three years begging political leadership in Congress and the White House to stop mandatory sequester cuts because they would be “catastrophic,” but when the cuts came, the same military said they still would be able to protect the nation.

There’s the Army that Odierno said is not able to respond to any new contingency beyond planned-for major wars. Last fall, he said, “Right now in the Army, we have two brigades that are trained. Two.” There’s the Air Force that said the flight hours for training that were lost by sequester cuts would risk the lives of combat pilots, and the Air Force that hasn’t fought a dogfight since Bosnia.

There’s the military that proclaims a crucial pivot to Asia is upon us, but is shifting only a handful of ships and personnel to that region. The military that boasts loudly of positioning in Singapore four littoral combat ships — the ship of the future — and then cuts nearly half of the Navy’s order of LCSs before the second ship makes it out of U.S. waters.

There’s the military that says the war years are over as it rapidly expands special operations fighters into Africa. There’s the military that says al-Qaeda is growing but has been defeated. There’s the military keeping open vital economic sea lanes in the South China Sea with warships, but that won’t step foot in Syria. Or Fallujah. Or the Congo.

There’s the military that says the defense industry must adapt to a new era beyond massive ground warfare and lower its budgets for weapons buying, and the military that pumps billions into Cold War-era hardware like nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

There’s the military that still says it’s promise of a paycheck and benefits to those Americans who volunteer their lives is unbreakable, or the military that tells Congress it must change those benefits or break the Pentagon’s half-trillion dollar bank.

At the Defense One Summit last November, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he views the military as just one component of government, working closely with everyone from the Department of Homeland Security to FEMA to advance U.S. interests. Asked to define the role of the U.S. military in the new era, Hagel went on for some time without much definition.

“I know I’m taking a long time on this answer, but I think there are a lot of components to the answer. And I don’t think it’s a glib yes, no, maybe, this is our role. We have many roles, but the primary role is a security and defense of this country,” he said. “We are a tool, we are part of, as I said earlier, the larger structure of government.”

“I think we should [use the military] in a judicious, careful, wise way when we think it’s clearly in our interests,” Hagel said, ultimately.

So, what is the state of defense? You tell me.

What follows is a deeper look at the state of the U.S. military services and the challenges they face this year. Continue the conversation with us at #StateofDefense.

Kevin Baron, Defense One, Jan 27

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