Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & Terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Earl Tilford earned his Ph.D. in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. This article is republished from V & V, a web site of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania.
In 1914, on the eve of the Great War, the Duke of Cambridge wrote, "There is a time for all things. There is even a time for change; and that is when it can no longer be avoided."
Speaking of change, the current debt crisis could force drastic cuts in the Department of Defense budget, perhaps as high as 50 percent.
In the immediate post-Cold War era, DoD futurists envisioned a 25-year period of "strategic pause" before the nation faced a "major peer competitor" sometime between 2015 and 2020. In the 1990s, major candidates for peer-competitor status included China and a resurgent Russia. India and a nuclear-armed Iran were cast as lesser threats. In those heady days, terrorism was seen as a tactic and more the purview of law enforcement. The major emphasis was on being prepared for big wars against peer competitors - wars no world power can afford to lose. Preparing for those wars also satisfied each service's need to perpetuate itself in familiar ways wrapped around developing and acquiring high-tech weapon systems. Programs like "The Army After Next," "From the Sea," and "Air Force Next" addressed future strategic paradigms focused on parochial core strengths.
To be sure, there were cuts in defense spending during the 1990s. The size of the American military shrank. The Air Force, alone among the services, reorganized its force structure from one based on strategic deterrence to power projection. Cuts were "salami slices" that, for the most part, reduced but did not reform outmoded force structures.
And then, September 11, 2001, changed everything. In the immediate aftermath, the Bush administration made a major mistake by declaring a "War on Terror" rather than specifying the enemy as al Qaeda, associated groups, and nations that support them. With a generic "terror" as the enemy, the war easily morphed from one into two wars, with Operation Iraqi Freedom launched in March 2003. Ten years later, the fighting in Iraq continues, and what was originally a campaign to root out and destroy al Qaeda in Afghanistan has become an endless struggle against the Taliban. This war has exhausted the American military, contributed to our national economic nightmare, and derailed critical thinking about the future.
This exhausted force is also outmoded. Cutting such a force by a quarter, much less half, would invite aggression by nations like Iran and North Korea. Keeping the current force at the status quo would be expensive and also leave the nation vulnerable to current threats and unable to cope with a rapidly growing Chinese threat.
The U.S. military needs massive restructuring. Its current structure originated with the reforms instituted in 1903 after the Spanish-American War. A major overhaul on the eve of World War II made it possible to fight the Axis powers. The National Security Act of 1947 institutionalized the Industrial Age force extant today. Now, the armed forces of the United States would be hard-pressed to counter a North Korean invasion of South Korea without using nuclear weapons.
In fact, war on the Korean peninsula is one of our immediate threats. Iran, soon to be a nuclear-armed state, is bent on establishing hegemony in the world's energy epicenter. Despite a predictably forthcoming declaration of "victory" in the ill-conceived War on Terror, al Qaeda and associated groups will continue to attack U.S. interests abroad while putting the nation on the defensive at home.
An anti-American alliance between Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, and possibly Cuba is not beyond the realm of possibility. If Mexico continues to descend into anarchy, that alliance could extend to our immediate and undefended southern border; imagine the cost of trying to fortify it sufficiently to keep it secure.
Slicing the salami thicker will result in fewer divisions, cutting new weapons acquisition, and trimming at the edges by reducing costs associated with professional military education. This is like starting a weight reduction with a frontal lobotomy and removing a few fingers. What is needed is drastic restructuring of the armed forces, massive reduction in the associated bureaucracy, and major changes in the way officers are educated.
Meanwhile, China is building a first-class fighting force, one capable of global power projection. While Russia's ability to project power remains questionable, its modernization programs focus on high-tech weaponry and on revitalizing nuclear forces.
Critics argue that the United States now spends more on its military than the next 10 nations combined. True. A lot of that goes to sustaining force structures that are redundant, unnecessary, and ill-suited for Information Age warfare. Much of it goes to personnel costs (including retirement), maintaining bases and posts that are no longer needed, and unnecessary civilian personnel. There is much that can be cut, but also much more that needs to be restructured if the United States is to survive the challenges beyond 2015.
The U.S. Department of Defense must restructure to accommodate deep budget cuts and, more important, be ready for the challenges of 21st-century warfare. Those challenges will include unconventional operations and wars fought in vastly expanded battle spaces. Reforms are needed in three areas.
First, today's DoD - structured around land, air, and sea forces to accommodate Industrial Age conflict - is inadequate for Information Age warfare. The U.S. Air Force received separate service status in 1947 by a mating of the atomic bomb to the long-range delivery system of the day, the B-29 bomber. For five decades, air-power enthusiasts argued that air power formed the tip of the spear while land and sea forces constituted the supporting shaft. That is no longer the case.
Human-piloted combat aircraft undergird the Air Force's reason for being. It is likely that the 20 B-2 bombers currently in the inventory, at $2 billion dollars a copy, will be the last of the manned bombers. Additionally, the F-35 is likely to be the last manned fighter developed by the United States. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be the fighting platforms of the future. They can do more for less cost because UAVs are not designed for pilot survivability. Additionally, in the current war, the Air Force has been the supporting - rather than the supported - service. It's time to reintegrate the Air Force into the U.S. Army. This eliminates an entire service with accompanying bureaucracies while minimally expanding an Army likely to experience reductions throughout its other branches.
The U.S. Navy should assume primary responsibility for space and cyber warfare. Movement in space is more analogous to that at sea than it is to operations on land or air. The global reach of the Navy also makes it appropriate to place cyber operations under its purview.
Second, since warfare is foremost a mental and secondly a physical endeavor, DoD needs to restructure officer education. In the interest of building a truly seamless force, the three service academies should be closed and then consolidated into a single National Defense University located in Washington, D.C. Additionally, the professional military education system can be streamlined by doing away with the individual service schools for junior, mid-level and senior officers. Schools like the Air, Army, and Naval war colleges would become part of the National Defense University. Military physicians and lawyers, after completing basic medical and legal training at civilian universities, can be prepared for military service at the NDU. Students could also take courses at the universities within the District of Columbia's educational consortium.
NDU's graduate courses (replacing the current war colleges) would offer real masters and doctoral level courses. Individual service "think tanks" associated with the various war colleges exist primarily to support host service prerogatives. As in any civilian university, research and writing at NDU would be expected of all faculty members. A single, consolidated think tank might be established at NDU with resulting cost savings in personnel. This reform would close three academies: close the Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps command and staff colleges; close the Army, Naval, Marine Corps, and Air war colleges; and reduce facilities at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, and Quantico, Virginia.
Eliminating three service academies reduces overhead costs and also might ameliorate the pernicious effects of inter-service rivalries by educating all officers at a single, integrated institution. An entering freshman class of 4,000 to 5,000 should provide enough entry-level Army and Naval officers. To further military diversity, ROTC would provide 2,000 to 3,000 officers a year, but ROTC should be restricted to the 50 to 75 top-rated academic institutions.
Third, allowing officers to retire at half pay after 20 years of service, and forcing them to retire (in most cases) at some point between 24 and 32 years, is a waste of human skills and money. Service careers should run between 25 and 40 years. Concomitantly, the number of flag-rank officers should be reduced by at least 50 percent. Older officers can be moved to desk jobs or, if academically qualified, serve as faculty at NDU or in ROTC units.
Finally, close the Pentagon. It was built to accommodate a bureaucracy needed to field and operationalize the Industrial Age armed forces of World War II. The tendency is for bureaucracies to fill empty space and once in place, become entrenched. The Pentagon would make a fabulous privately run retirement complex with enough room for a shopping mall, restaurants, a gymnasium, and even a hospital. A restructured DoD could be housed in the Forrestal Building in downtown Washington.
This restructuring streamlines bureaucracies, utilizes human capital and potential more effectively, and fosters a seamless interaction between the services. Armed forces exist to fight and win the nation's wars. A leaner, better-educated force can meet the challenges of Information Age Warfare and do it at considerably less cost. *