Project on Defense Alternatives

Can the United States Spend Less on Defense?

Toward a Smaller, More Efficient,
and More Relevant US Military

PDA Briefing Memo #17
Carl Conetta
October 2000

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Abstract: The present difficulties of America's armed forces derive primarily from a lack of realism in threat assessment, an unnecessarily ambitious post-Cold War military strategy, and a failure to adapt to the specific challenges of the new era. The failures of reform touch on matters of doctrine, force structure, modernization, and force employment and management. Ten years after the Cold War's end, even the rudimentary task of infrastructure reduction remains unfinished. In this context, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are boldly seeking a $30 billion-a-year reprieve from change. But a different course is available -- one that could safely lead by 2005 to a military of 1.15 million active-duty personnel, costing $248 billion (in today's currency). In order to realize a smaller, more efficient, and more relevant military, the United States should:

  • Configure the size and modernization of its military to meet discernible threats, both current and rising;

  • Modify regional war plans to take account of changes in threat potential; relax some aspects of the two-war strategy;

  • Restrict the diplomatic and "environment shaping" activities of the military;

  • Focus naval overseas presence on those critical regions where land-based forces provide insufficient coverage. This entails returning to a "two ocean" standard focusing on the Pacific and Indian oceans;

  • Restructure the armed forces' tactical units to increase their flexibility;

  • Reform force management practices to ensure efficient utilization of assets;

  • Adapt training regimes and personnel management practices to the needs of operational deployments, and

  • Reduce excess infrastructure and accelerate the process of privatizing non-combat support functions.

Can the United States Spend Less on Defense?

Toward a Smaller, More Efficient, and More Relevant US Military

Table Of Contents
1. Introduction
2. Can We Afford to Spend More on Defense?
3. Can We Safely Spend Less on Defense?
4. Rethinking US Military Strategy
4.1 Environment shaping
4.2 Preparing for an uncertain future
5. Key Determinants of Force Size and Readiness Requirements
5.1 Regional war plans
5.2 Global military presence
6. A Smaller, Less Expensive Military
6.1 Budget
6.2 Operations
7. Toward a More Efficient, Effective, and Relevant Military
7.1 The problem of "strategic irrelevance"
7.2 Is there a (revolutionary) technological fix? Kosovo as test case.
7.3 A more relevant Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)
7.4 Changes in how the Pentagon manages it assets
8. Convergence

(This memo is an expanded version of a presentation by PDA Co-director Carl Conetta at "Alternative National Military Strategies for the United States", a conference co-sponsored by the National Securities Study Program of Georgetown University and the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, held at Georgetown University, Washington DC, 21 September 2000.)

1. Introduction

While visiting Texas in March 2000 Secretary of Defense William Cohen pronounced the peace dividend over. "What we have to do now," said Secretary Cohen, "is build up our forces, our capability."1 Although mistaken, this proposition is probably the closest we have come in recent years to a bipartisan view on defense issues. President Clinton started the ball rolling in late 1998 with the addition of $112 billion to the Pentagon's five year budget. Thus, the nation entered the 21st century spending $285 billion on defense -- almost 80 percent as much as the average for the 1980s, the peak decade for peacetime Cold War defense spending.

President Clinton's largess did not, however, mollify its intended audience: the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In response to the President's initiative they have been lobbying assiduously and with remarkable independence since late 1998 to add as much as another $30 billion a year to the Pentagon budget.2 Regardless of who occupies the White House in 2001, it is virtually certain that the Defense Department budget will soon after exceed $300 billion annually in FY 2000 dollars.

The recent bipartisan willingness to contemplate major increases in defense spending has several origins. Political realities play a part, beginning with the 1998-1999 presidential impeachment crisis and continuing into the 2000 election season. Also key are the genuine difficulties faced by our armed forces as they wrestle with the unique requirements of the post-Cold War era. Finally, the remarkable performance of the US economy in recent years has been an important driver of the new fiscal liberalism regarding defense.

This policy memo will address only in passing the question, Can we afford to spend more on defense? Its central focus is whether we truly need to spend more from the vantage point of military security. In addressing this issue the memo not only aims to clarify the sources of our armed forces' recent difficulties but also to ventilate options for moving toward a smaller, more efficient, and more effective military.

2. Can We Afford to Spend More on Defense?

In his introduction to the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Defense Secretary Cohen drew attention to the post-Cold War decline in the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) that the United States devotes to defense. Since the publication of the QDR defense spending has increased, but the US GDP has increased even more. So the decline in the defense GDP share has continued. Today we devote about 3 percent of our GDP to defense -- the smallest share since 1940; throughout the 1980s we had averaged close to 6 percent. Such comparisons have become central to the arguments for increased spending. Put simply, the contention is that because the United States devoted a much greater share of its wealth to defense during the Cold War than it does today, we can afford to raise the defense budget -- and perhaps significantly so.3

It is a peculiar myopia, however, that compares today's US defense investment rate with that of the Cold War era while ignoring current comparisons between the United States and its competitors. Regarding military competitors: some spend a greater percentage of national wealth than does the United States, but their absolute level of spending is much lower than that of the United States and NATO. The two biggest military spenders outside the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) -- Russia and China -- together spend less than 38 percent as much as the United States and approximately 20 percent as much as the group of all NATO states plus Japan. This compares to Cold War ratios (circa 1985) of 109 percent for the Warsaw Pact and China against the United States and 66 percent for the same against all NATO plus Japan. Adding smaller potential competitors and rogues -- North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya -- only further accentuates the West's post-Cold War edge in military spending.4

More relevant to the issue of affordability, however, is a comparison between the percentage of GDP devoted to defense by the United States and its potential economic rivals. Here we find that presently the United States invests a greater percentage of national wealth in defense than does its NATO allies, significantly more than the world average, and much more than its chief economic competitors. This comparison pertains to the economic aspect of strategic competition. Economic competitiveness is partly determined by such things as national debt reduction, national savings rates, infrastructure investment, and spending on market-oriented technology research -- all of which vie with national defense for scarce resources.

Arguments to boost the portion of GDP that the United States devotes to defense entail an unacknowledged wager about the nature of strategic competition: they bet that it is not much different in the present period of rapid global economic change than it was during the Cold War, when military contention between two superpowers set the agenda of world affairs. A contrasting view is that the principal form of strategic competition and instability today is economic, not military. From this perspective, the United States might seek to reduce its defense GDP share to a level as far below the world average (and as close to its chief economic rivals) as military security imperatives will allow. The reasons are not purely economic. A nation's long-term military potential depends on its economic vitality. In vernacular terms: what is at issue is the preservation of the goose that lays the "silver bullets".

Economic imperatives form only part of the strategic equation, of course -- and not the part with the greatest immediacy. The other part involves military security imperatives, narrowly defined. These provide the only positive rationale for spending any portion at all of a nation's wealth on military preparedness. In this sphere the calculation of requirements involves (i) a nation's interests and goals in the world, (ii) the nature and magnitude of the challenges to those interests and goals, (iii) the specific ways a nation plans to achieve its goals and protect its interests, and (iv) the effectiveness and efficiency of a nation's military in serving these ends. While economic imperatives compel us (especially today) to spend as little on defense as we safely can, the variables on the military side of the equation tell us whether it is indeed possible to spend less or, conversely, necessary to spend more.

3. Can We Safely Spend Less on Defense?

Is it possible to spend significantly less on defense without relinquishing important security interests? This question is related to another: How have we come to spend as much as we do on defense despite the Cold War's end? Several aspects of post-Cold War defense policy, pertaining to threat assessment, military strategy, and force development, are germane to answering both questions. Looking at each of these in turn:

  • During the past decade our calculation of military requirements has become detached from a careful empirical assessment of threats, current or rising;
  • Key aspects of our present military strategy (as codified in the 1997 QDR) are unnecessarily ambitious, probably unworkable, and possibly even counter-productive; and, finally
  • Our armed forces are not yet adapted very well to the challenges and opportunities of the present era -- and this breeds inefficiency. Indeed, even the basic task of infrastructure reform remains unfinished.

The retention of excess infrastructure in particular reflects a bi-partisan failure to pursue the most obvious and pressing of reform measures. Today our armed forces carry 20 percent excess base structure. In addition, maintenance depots, labs, testing facilities, schools, and hospitals all operate with significant excess capacity. Meanwhile, efforts to centralize or privatize support functions have proceeded at a delusory pace. Estimates of the savings that a more assiduous program of infrastructure reform might achieve range from five billion dollars a year to more than $20 billion -- certainly enough to have substantially relieved many of the readiness-related problems of the past few years.5

Infrastructure reform hardly exhausts the options for reducing defense expenditures, however. Adjustments in strategy, threat assessment, and military organization could save us much more. Changes in these areas could also produce a military posture that better corresponds to the unique needs of the present era.

4. Rethinking US Military Strategy

The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review set out three broad tasks for our military: (i) respond to current crises, (ii) shape the strategic environment, and (iii) prepare now for an uncertain future. Of course, our military has always performed these functions to some extent. The QDR distinguished itself, however, by increasing the relative emphasis on the second and third tasks. The result has been a significant expansion in the foreign policy role of our armed forces and a widening of their focus beyond the traditional concern with "real and present" dangers. Moreover, under the rubric of "crisis response," force planning and development has focused on the goal of being able to fight multiple, major regional wars at an accelerated pace. Paradoxically, the actual operational activity of our armed forces during the past nine years has focused on smaller-scale contingencies, including so-called "stability operations".

There is a tension between our military's preparations for major war and its actual activity in frequent smaller conflicts. This has contributed substantially to readiness problems in recent years. These problems were supposed to have reached crisis proportion in mid-1997 -- despite the Clinton administration's having spent on readiness 30 percent more per person than the average for the 1980s.6 The first step toward a less expensive, more cost-effective military would be to focus military preparations on those forms of crisis response that our armed forces are actually undertaking and likely to undertake during the next 10-15 years. This means a greater emphasis on the requirements associated with smaller-scale contingencies. Also, our strategy should be adjusted to (i) de-emphasize the Pentagon's "environment shaping" activities and (ii) alter the way our military prepares for an uncertain future.

The next two sections of this memo address the issues of environment shaping and hedging against future possible threats. Subsequent sections address our crisis response strategy and priorities, how they should change, and the implications of change for force composition and cost.

4.1 Environment shaping

Environment shaping encompasses not only traditional deterrence, which focuses on mature threats, but also more diffuse efforts to use military power to channel strategic change down paths favorable to US interests. Of course, almost any use of our military power can be said to "shape the strategic environment." But some activities, such as so-called "military diplomacy", bear only a distal relationship to core military missions. Such activities are consuming a greater part of our military resources than ever before and they represent the extension of Pentagon prerogatives into functional areas once reserved more exclusively for the State Department.7

Today, our military engages in more than 170 multinational exercises a year.8 Military assistance programs and other forms of military-to-military contacts involve our armed forces in over 100 countries.9 Compared to the Cold War period, a greater percentage of these are occurring outside formal alliance relationships or outside cooperative arrangements with a clear, immediate, and assured security payoff. Many are supposed to serve a non-specific confidence-building function -- a type of "getting to know each other" exercise. In these, information flows in both directions. The flow of expertise and technology, however, is more unidirectional -- from us to our partners of the moment.

The environment shaping activity that is most consumptive of resources is "global military presence." During the Cold War our near-global presence was a byproduct of missions having to do with countering the power, activity, and influence of the Soviet Union and its allies. Now it has gained the status of a mission in its own right -- and it is the closest we come in practice to embracing a "global cop" role. (The implication of this mission for force size and structure will be examined in more detail below.)

The problem with many "environment shaping" activities is that the supposed link between our actions and the desired effect is tenuous at best. The history of the practice suggests that unintended, unpredictable, and unreliable outcomes abound. Our considerable efforts to shape Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan testify to this. Far from discouraging military competition, some forms of environment shaping may actually help provoke it.

Generally speaking, we should transfer many of our hopes and expectations for environment shaping back to where they belong: the State Department. This implies curtailing the practice of "military diplomacy" and rolling back some of our multinational exercises and military assistance programs. The Pentagon's role in environment shaping should focus more narrowly on traditional deterrence. And we should discard non-specific "global military presence" as a mission in its own right. Instead, America's military presence abroad should become more closely associated with specific confrontations and areas of concern.

4.2 Preparing for an uncertain future
The United States needs to rethink how best to prepare for threats that do not exist today and that may or may not exist 15, 20, or more years in the future. Two ways that the present strategy hedges against future uncertainty is (i) by maintaining an overly large active-component force structure and (ii) by proceeding with massive buys of advanced weapon platforms originally designed to counter Cold War adversaries. But these measures cannot assure us that we will have the type and quality of armed forces we actually might need in the future, if new and more capable foes arise. Instead, they merely preserve 20th century force structure, modernizing it along the most expensive lines available with turn-of-the-century technology. The only real assurance this provides is that we will spend hundreds of billions of dollars more than we might otherwise.

The QDR rationalizes maintaining an overly large active force as a hedge against the re-emergence of a peer competitor -- an eventuality it says is unlikely before 2015. This time line is overly conservative. It is like saying that a child is unlikely to grow six feet tall before his sixth birthday. The proposition, although true, is trivial. In fact, there is no realistic prospect that we and our allies will face a military peer even on a regional basis before 2018. For Russia or China -- the leading candidates for peer status -- to do better than this, they would first have to surpass the Japanese economic development "miracle" of 1960-1990 and then surpass the German military development feat of the 1930s. This, of course, also assumes that Russia can achieve and that China can sustain domestic stability.

A constant reference for concerns about the sudden re-emergence of a military peer is the rapid rise of Nazi Germany during the 1930s. The reference is a relevant one -- but not in the way that purveyors of extreme uncertainty imagine. In 1928, more than ten years before Germany launched the Second World War, it already had an industrial capacity 58 percent as great as that of the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union combined. In per capita terms, its manufacturing potential led the world. And as early as 1935 it led the world in defense spending as well. Today, by comparison, no potential threat state or combination of threat states comes remotely close to demonstrating this type of potential vis a vis the Western allied powers.

Meeting the challenge of a peer rival, should one begin to gestate, would involve a race between its emergence and the ability of the United States to reconstitute sufficient additional military power to ensure that, at minimum, the military balance does not slip below effective parity. Given America's incomparable military-industrial base, it would enjoy a unique advantage in any such competition. Today's huge gap between the United States and any potential rival defines America's strategic reaction time -- its margin of safety.

Turning to the Pentagon's present modernization plans: if we believe that a dramatic revolution in military affairs (RMA) lies somewhere in the not-too-distant future, we should avoid buying into the most expensive interim technology today -- such as F-22, V-22, new attack submarine, and the CVNX aircraft carrier. Should an RMA eventuate and spread, these platforms may prove obsolete on arrival. And buying them beggars our ability to pursue and field twenty-first century technology in a timely way. The bottom-line question is, Should we be buying piloted combat aircraft that cost $180 million per unit when their capabilities far exceed today's needs, but may fall short against new types of foes that arise half-way through their service life? While something less than the F-22 will meet our needs today, the more distant future -- say, after 2020 -- may belong to hypersonic unpiloted vehicles. A similar logic applies even more strongly to the Navy's CVNX program. Do we really imagine that long-deck aircraft carriers will still rule the seas in 2050?

The Pentagon's present modernization programs are squeezed between a present characterized by much reduced threat and a longer-term future in which the nature of threats is uncertain. What should be clear today, however, is that the West is not currently in a modernization race with anyone, much less an RMA race. This can be substantiated by a variety of comparative measures: relative modernization programs, procurement and R&D spending, growth and quality of research and military industrial base, or arms import and export activity. By all these measures, the West and its regional allies not only predominate, but are gaining on their potential competitors (including China).10

A less costly and more flexible way to hedge against future uncertainty would emphasize preparations for force reconstitution and the maintenance of a robust R&D establishment, military production base, and reserve military. We should economize on modernization for the next 10-12 years, emphasizing upgraded models of current generation platforms, while laying the economic and technological basis for re-capitalizing along revolutionary lines thereafter -- if need be. 11

5. Key Determinants of Force Size and Readiness Requirements

Smaller-scale contingencies and peace operations have attracted a great deal of criticism as the source of our military's recent readiness woes. But the ire is misplaced.12 Far more consumptive of our time, energy, and resources are our preparations for large-scale regional wars and our maintenance of a global military presence. In key respects these two broad areas of activity substantially exceed our real needs.

5.1 Regional war plans
Our current plans for fighting regional wars illustrate how the QDR strategy combines with an unrealistic appraisal of threats to substantially boost force structure, modernization, and readiness requirements. How the two-war scenario affects readiness standards was demonstrated last year in the controversy over two Army divisions (10th Mountain and 1st Infantry) that supposedly were disabled by their involvement in the Balkans. In fact, their low (C-4) readiness status reflected their inability to disengage from their current mission fast enough to meet planning goals for deploying to take part in the second war of the two war scenario. Thus, their shortfall was partly an artifact of the plan for fighting two wars.

Present war plans exaggerate the power of regional foes
Our current war plans focus on "regional rogue" states whose armed forces have been in steep decline for a decade. Stripped of superpower patronage, these states have lost the capacity to equip, train, sustain, or employ forces like those of the 1980s.13 Correspondingly, we should adjust our force packages for regional war downward by about 30 percent -- a larger cut for the Navy and Marine Corps, a smaller cut for the Air Force.

In fact, rather than getting smaller and more manageable, our planned force packages for regional war have been growing in size. Since 1996, the Army's stated requirements for fighting a two war scenario have grown by 70,000 troops.14 Turning to the Navy: its Surface Combatant Force Level Study also foresees major regional conflicts requiring more surface combatants than had deployed for the 1990-1991 Gulf War.15 Looking forward to 2005 it sees 69 surface combatants needed for a Persian Gulf conflict and 76 for a conflict in the northwest Pacific. During the Gulf War the USN rotated approximately 55 surface combatants through the region with no more than 45 directly engaged at any one time.

Present war plans seek to substantially accelerate the pace of conflict
Our regional war plans also incorporate the goal of winning major wars within 100-150 days (depending on region) -- which is much less time than it took to complete the Gulf War. This accelerated schedule is supposed to dramatically reduce risks, but the case is not compelling. USAF Major General Charles Link has correctly criticized plans to greatly accelerate the deployment of ground troops as " a strategy for putting the largest possible number of Americans within range of enemy fire as quickly as we can." 16 We can afford to relax the warfighting schedule for regional wars and, instead, retain the Gulf War practice of fighting in distinct defensive and offensive phases.

Present war plans are based on highly unlikely scenarios
Finally, our strategy for handling multiple wars is overly ambitious. It prescribes conducting two overlapping counter-offensives in wars that begin about 45 days apart. This puts tremendous pressure on swing assets, lift, and active-component forces generally. But the demands and costs of this approach are not commensurate with the very low probability of the scenario. It is unlikely to occur even given a 40- or 50-year time period. We should move further down the path of the "win-hold-win" alternative, which delays the second counteroffensive. And we should plan to rely more on reserve forces in our preparations for multiple wars.

Taken together these adjustments would substantially relieve force structure and, thus, modernization requirements. They would also impact significantly on readiness goals because these are pegged to executing the two war plan, as noted above. There would be a price to pay, of course, but the currency would be measured primarily in time, not casualties.

There is nothing in our recent experience of fighting regional conflicts to suggest that a headlong rush into large-scale offensive operations will ensure fewer casualties. This might be true in wars with opponents far more capable than the Iraqis (circa 1990) at persisting in offensive action against US-style defenses. At any rate, the potential enemy capabilities that most worry US planners today are ballistic missiles -- and these are likely to be expended early in a shooting war, as Iraq demonstrated in the Gulf War. Massive rapid deployment of ground troops does nothing to undermine this threat; indeed, it only serves to enable it.

5.2 Global military presence
In recent years the United States has had between 40,000 and 60,0000 personnel on average deployed in smaller-scale operations at any one time. It also has maintained a presence of less than 200,000 troops at permanent bases on foreign soil and 30,000 sailors and marines afloat in foreign waters.17 "Presence" refers to the latter two categories of overseas service personnel and not those temporarily deployed in operations.

When "presence" is associated with specific regions and confrontations that concern us, it facilitates rapid crisis response and serves deterrence. Units forward deployed on land constitute an immediate bulwark against aggression. They embody an unmistakable statement of US interest, commitment, and intent -- and, thus, constitute a strong deterrent. Strong deterrence is difficult to maintain against an adversary's tendency to misperceive or underestimate our interests and commitment. Thus, it is important to make clear who and what precisely is being deterred. The success of deterrence often hinges on the fact that land-based forces are deployed in a way that underscores a rather specific "line in the sand."

Today, only in Korea and the Persian Gulf do land-based deployments correlate closely with a major threat of aggression. Deployments in Europe, by contrast, have come to serve more of a political-military function, reassuring our allies of our continued commitment to NATO. Our bases in Europe also are supposed to serve more than before as jumping-off points for deployments further east or south -- although our attempts to use European land forces in this way ( for operations in Bosnia and Kosovo) have proved less than satisfactory.

The Navy and Marine Corps' rotational deployments afloat, involving carrier battle groups and Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), reinforce the land-based deployments and facilitate power projection to areas where no or relatively few US personnel are permanently stationed. These rotational deployments are also supposed to have a more general or nonspecific deterrent effect -- suppressing the proclivity to aggression wherever they visit or pass. But this secondary effect can only be regarded as weak. Naval and Marine Corps rotational deployments lack the ingredients for strong deterrence -- except in those places where US interests are otherwise strongly substantiated.

There are several steps we can take to maximize the utility of our military presence abroad:

  • First, we should re-associate naval presence with those specific, critical areas of instability that concern us and that cannot be adequately covered by land-based forces. This means returning to a two-ocean standard focusing on the Pacific and Indian oceans, as proposed by former Atlantic Command CINC General Jack Sheehan. 18 Marine Corps MEUs and smaller Navy flotillas might also occasionally respond as needed to temporary crises in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

  • Second, Army and Air Force units stationed in western Europe should be configured for more rapid and efficient deployment elsewhere -- further east or south. Recent deployments of these forces to Bosnia and Kosovo were too slow. Moreover, with nearly 90,000 troops stationed in Europe, there is no good reason to have had to bring in another 6,000 troops to meet the Kosovo war requirement of 20,000 total. Given the low likelihood of a major theater war in Europe occurring anytime soon, our NATO committed forces must be prepared to serve more flexibly in other roles.

  • Third, forward stationed forces in Northeast Asia should also be used more flexibly "out of area", as conditions in their "home" regions permit. The tendency to firmly anchor those assets based on the Korean peninsula should be adjusted as the confrontation there abates.

A return to a two-ocean standard, as suggested above, implies a substantial reduction in the requirement for naval forces. Although it is true that, apart from their presence "mission," almost all of our naval and marine assets are also presently allotted a role in the two-war scenario, this should be modified. The size of planned Naval and Marine Corps deployments for major regional wars should more accurately reflect our need for the unique capabilities that these services and no others can provide. The calculation of overall USN and USMC requirements should not accommodate using the assets of these services simply as substitutes for Air Force and Army assets in regional wars. Thus, we should plan to deploy only two (or, briefly, three) reinforced carrier battle groups, one Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and one or two MEUs for each of two regional wars (presumably in the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia).

6. A Smaller, Less Expensive Military

In line with a more realistic appraisal of threats as well as the adjustments in military strategy and roles suggested above, US active-component force structure could be safely reduced by about 18 percent. Corresponding reductions in personnel might be limited to only 16-17 percent in order to ensure higher levels of readiness. Thus, the active-component military would comprise about 1.15 million personnel.

The reductions would be unevenly distributed among the services. A smaller force might comprise:

  • Eight Army division equivalents;

  • A Navy of nine aircraft carriers, 100 major surface combatants, and 36 attack submarines;

  • A Marine Corps of 4 active, 1 reserve brigades; and

  • An Air Force with 10 active and 8 reserve fighter wings plus 150 bombers.

Although smaller than today's US military, this force of 1.15 million active-component personnel would still be one-third larger than the combined forces of the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. And it would be 50 percent larger than the Russian armed forces currently planned by President Putin. China's military would certainly remain larger -- perhaps twice as large, even after reform. Nonetheless, the hypothesized future US military would remain the best trained, best equipped, most ready, and most technologically advanced in the world -- by a substantial margin.

6.1 Budget
By 2005 this military would cost the nation approximately $248 billion (2000 USD) in outlays. This budget level is equivalent to the present defense budgets of the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, and Japan combined. Allocated by title this budget would provide:

Personnel: $68 billion
Operations & Maintenance: $88 bn
Procurement: $55 bn
Research & Development: $30 bn
Construction & Housing: $7 bn

Long-term savings in procurement would be achieved through reductions in force structure and by procurement choices emphasizing modular upgrades and new models of current generation platforms. Short-term procurement savings would be realized by the brief extension of the "procurement holiday" implicit in force structure reductions: the oldest items of equipment would be retired first, automatically decreasing the average age of the remaining fleets. Eventually the procurement account would have to rise by $10-20 billion, depending on future procurement choices. However, significant future savings might be achieved in the Operations and Maintenance account, if reform and restructuring initiatives are successful. Hence, it should be possible to keep the budget below $275 bn (2000 USD) through 2010, even taking various forms of non-monetary inflation into account.

6.2 Operations
The hypothesized military of 1.15 million active-duty personnel could send 500,000 active troops to war with another 150,000 held in strategic reserve. In addition, 200,000 reservists might be made available for deployment in the case of major regional wars. Within this total number of deployable personnel there is a substantial capacity to fight two regional conflicts against real world foes -- although it would take longer to win than we currently plan.

The real daily test of a smaller military, however, would be its ability to handle frequent and varied smaller-scale contingencies. A reasonable goal would be a capacity to routinely have as many as 55,000 troops deployed in such operations with another 170,000 troops stationed in foreign lands or at sea in foreign waters. (Of course, much less routine activity would be possible during those years in which major regional wars occur.)

Unit for unit, this would be asking more of a future military than we ask of our military today. But our current difficulty in dealing with the pace and nature of operational deployments has less to do with quantitative factors than qualitative ones. Put simply: there is presently a mismatch between the Pentagon's tool kit and today's missions -- and this manifests itself in reduced efficiency and reduced effectiveness. At issue is not only the contents of the Pentagon's tool box -- its mix of assets and units -- but also the way in which they are used.

7. Toward a More Efficient, Effective, and Relevant Military

In recent years, less than four percent of US military personnel (on average) have been operationally deployed at any one time. Taking into account the need for a rotation base, an average of 12 percent of the active-component military is routinely in the deployment cue -- conducting operations, preparing to deploy, or returning and recovering from deployment.

This would not cripple a truly efficient military. In fact, taking into account all US personnel abroad (either deployed in operations or stationed at bases), a smaller percentage of our military is overseas today than during the supposedly halcyon 1980s -- 19 percent versus 24 percent.19

The special requirements that our current operational activity imposes has to do with the variety, frequency, concurrence, and type of operations -- not their total draw on the personnel pool. In addition, there is greater tension today than existed during the Cold War between the requirements of our foreign based (or stationed) forces and our operationally deployed ones. In some respects our permanent military presence on bases in Germany, Japan, and Korea does not facilitate deployment to crisis areas as much as it competes with it.

7.1 The problem of "strategic irrelevance"
Generally speaking, there are three impediments to the US armed forces' ability to manage today's contingency demands:

  • First, the US military remains doctrinally fixated on high-intensity, decisive battles and ideal or "textbook" wars as the Prussian military philosopher Karl von Clausewitz theorized them 170 years ago. These are the 7-alarm blazes of history. But today's wars are more like brush fires, chemical fires, and multiple fires burning in the middle of urban riots -- messy, complex affairs.

  • Second, reviewing our military's menu of capabilities in light of today's threat environment reveals that we are remarkably well-equipped to fight the wrong types of wars : strategic nuclear war, conventional naval war, and big air-land wars involving heavy mechanized armies and powerful air forces on both sides. This doesn't correspond closely with today's distribution of threats.

  • Finally, our armed services remain best suited to fighting very large conflicts, but infrequently. Our current military posture remains geared toward the rare, big push -- rather than the smaller, varied, and more frequent contingencies that prevail today. This is reflected not only in our military's base and logistics infrastructure but also in its training and personnel management systems. It is evident even at the level of tactical organization.

Taken together these issues point to the danger of our armed forces becoming strategically irrelevant. This problem is sometimes recognized, but in an oblique way. We externalize it as a threat: asymmetric warfare. However, many of the asymmetries we face today -- for instance in Kosovo -- do not indicate the emergence of new, resourceful foes who are rapidly adapting themselves to exploit our weaknesses. Instead, they indict our own failure to adequately adapt our armed forces to new circumstances and missions. Of course, America's military may be able to prevail eventually in most circumstances by bringing its vast and growing material advantages to bear. But this is not an elegant solution; it is like using a hammer to drive a screw. It merely transforms the problem of strategic irrelevance into problems of inefficiency and imprecise results.

Along these lines, the 1998 military readiness crisis mostly reflected neither a lack of resources nor an excess of operational activity but, instead, the failure to re-shape our military according to need. For instance, a key readiness problem has involved assets that are in high demand but low supply. These include, among others:

  • Electronic warfare and SEAD aircraft; Reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence-gathering aircraft; Airlift assets; A/AO-10 attack/observation aircraft and gunships, and

  • Special operations, intelligence, communications, military police, and public affairs ground units as well as various other types of specialized support units.

These have suffered from excessively high operational tempo. At minimum, we need to alter the composition of our tool kit so that so called "Low Density/High Demand" assets are better represented in the active force. Other worthwhile and long-overdue adaptations include:

  • The development of medium-weight (or light mechanized) Army units -- although this hardly requires putting the entire Army on wheels or attempting to build, as the Army intends, a medium-weight main battle tank with capabilities surpassing those of the 70-ton Abrams.20 The pressing need for such units has been recognized in some quarters of the Army community for more than 15 years. Recent efforts to develop and field them trace back to the ill-fated Ninth High Technology Test-bed Division of the 1980s. The principal impediment to fielding such units, then as now, has been doctrinal and organizational, not technological. Dissatisfaction with available technology has focused on its inability to provide medium-weight units with substantial "full spectrum" capabilities -- a vain and unnecessary requirement.

  • The Navy should move away from its traditional emphasis on large Carrier Battle Groups as the center-piece of routine rotational deployments. Instead, it should more routinely use smaller deployments, including some centered on Aegis cruisers and USMC Amphibious Readiness Groups. The recent decision to retain some frigates previously slated for retirement from the active force is a positive step toward a more flexible Navy better adapted to current conditions, which prioritize littoral missions. But the retention of frigates should not lead to a larger fleet; instead, it should be incorporated as part of a program of relying on a somewhat lighter fleet and smaller, more varied deployments.

7.2 Is there a (revolutionary) technological fix? Kosovo as test case.
Structural solutions are seldom as well-received as technological ones. Technological fixes usually promise a "plus up" -- that is, the addition of new assets to existing force structure. By contrast, doctrinal innovation and organizational restructuring often threaten to upset vested interests throughout the services. So, today, a great deal of hope is being invested in a technological "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) as a means of surmounting the problem of strategic irrelevance. The Kosovo war was something of a test case.

In Kosovo we saw new capabilities for standoff precision attack mated with "strategic coercion" as a method of war. Rather than emphasizing the denial of Milosevic's goals on the battlefield, the Kosovo strategy was supposed to leap-frog battlefield risk and directly attack the enemy's will. Coercion, however, is an inherently weak form of control. This is because the targets of threat and attack are only indirectly related to the ultimate goals of coercion. It takes a lot of destruction to compel a Milosevic or Hussein to behave precisely as desired. As a result, there is pressure to "up the ante" -- to increase the intensity and scope of attacks. And attempting to attack strategic targets from standoff distances imposes additional demands; it severely tests our capabilities for both accurate intelligence and precision.

The net result in Kosovo was that risks and costs were not so much avoided as simply transplanted from the battlefield level to the strategic level -- unsettling the Western alliance, complicating our relationship with both the Russians and the Chinese, and raising the cost in civilian lives of an operation whose legitimacy hinged on its humanitarian rationale. Moreover, having had to fight the war the way we did, we paid a price in terms of the outcome on the ground, which was less than optimal. In retrospect, the experience of the Kosovo war, its outcomes, and its repercussions cast doubt on the hopes for a simple technological antidote to strategic irrelevance.

7.3 A more relevant Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)
There is more to the RMA than new forms of precision attack and strategic warfare, of course. Although visions of a predominantly technological RMA have captured the popular imagination, there is a strain of RMA thinking that emphasizes structural and doctrinal transformation. In this view, the adoption of information-age organizational principles is more important than vast infusions of new technology. Typical of this approach is Colonel Douglas Macgregor's Breaking the Phalanx and Lt. General Frederic Brown's The US Army in Transition II: Landpower in the Information Age. 21 Neither is "anti-technology" in any sense; rather, they prioritize change in doctrine, organization, training, and leadership methods as a necessary foundation for effective operations at current or future levels of technology. In accord with its emphasis on organizational transformation, this approach sees improvements in command, control, and communications as especially important -- although the current impediments to progress are understood as principally organizational, rather than technological. A key requirement, for instance, is to break down the institutional barriers that undermine effective communication among the services and among the branches within each service.22

Due to the growth of information and communication capabilities, redundancy in unit structure and platforms is an increasingly outmoded solution to the problem of ensuring that the right force is in the right place at the right time. Following the lead of business we might expect our armed forces to adopt smaller, more independent tactical units designed to assemble rapidly into an unlimited variety of task forces. We might also expect smaller staffs, flatter command hierarchies, and greater lateral communication among units -- not only within services, but also across service boundaries. There is an increasing fungibility of air, land, and sea platforms, and modern communications should facilitate a quantum leap in joint cooperation. Thus, we might expect a profusion (rather than a trickle) of joint experiments in which new multi-service combinations of units and assets are tested.

Such changes would signal an evolution beyond today's large, stolid formations toward smaller modularized units that could be tailored to fit mission requirements with minimum redundancy. Writ large, this is the foundation for a military that can do more with fewer resources and less stress. Unfortunately, official policy seems immune to the implications of the information revolution when it comes to force organization. Not much revolutionary has occurred in terms of tactical organization during the past 15 years -- and some would say 40 years.

Good alternatives do exist outside the Pentagon mainstream, however. A notable one is Colonel Macgregor's vision of a modularized Army. Macgregor suggests basing the Army on a variety of tactical units that are much smaller than today's divisions, but about twice the size of today's brigades. Information units would help tie together these "building blocks" into larger, mission-tailored task forces. The information units could also patch-in units from other services and other nations. This is a vision of an "open architecture" Army that is not only rapidly-adaptable, but also "joint" and "combined" from the bottom up.

By contrast, the recent Army initiative to convert to an all-wheeled force retains the old organization in all its essentials: it is the "status quo on wheels". Although it makes sense to build a contingent of medium-weight Army units, the new proposal otherwise keeps the Army organizationally cumbersome -- an industrial age force. The simple fact is that the Army is organized to fight optimally in corps and divisions -- units that involve upwards of 100,000 and 25,000 troops, respectively, including support personnel. Of course, it can deploy smaller units, such as brigade- or battalion-sized task forces, but these come with a long tail and they must draw away vital command and support elements from their larger, parent organizations. For this reason, the deployment of two brigades to the Balkans, for instance, can substantially degrade the readiness of two entire divisions.

7.4 Changes in how the Pentagon manages it assets
Previous sections of this memo have suggested how the services might alter the mix of assets and units in their tool kits to better fit current operational requirements. We have also addressed how the structure of the "tools" themselves -- tactical units -- might be changed to facilitate greater flexibility. A final target for change is the Pentagon's procedures for managing its assets -- units and people. With reference to recent readiness problems, there are two changes that would substantially increase the capacity of our military to mange today's operational demands:

Improve the flow of assets among regional commands
The assets and units we possess must be able to flow freely from where they sit to where we need them. The requirement for this type of simple, but vital flexibility increases as the force grows smaller. And it is especially important with regard to "low density, high demand" assets.

We must distribute operational burdens more evenly across regional commands or else we will create pockets of unreadiness. This is what happened to the Air Force during the mid- and late-90s: some commands were ground down while others carried a much lighter load.23

The Air Force's Aerospace Expeditionary Force concept is a good corrective step, although not yet complete; it should be accelerated and extended. The Pentagon's Global Military Force policy is also a sensible step -- but too often over-ridden. In general, the flow of our military assets has become overly constrained by a quasi-feudal arrangement that gives regional Commanders-in-Chief too great a hold over assets in peacetime. This made more sense when a few hair-trigger confrontations posed paramount threats to our security. Today's circumstances both require and allow greater global flexibility.

A broader resistance to using our military assets flexibly was also evident in the the 1999 "carrier gap" flap, which concerned the redeployment of a Pacific carrier, the Kitty Hawk, to help support operations in the Persian Gulf and Europe. In some assessments this opened a critical gap in our Pacific defenses and, thus, revealed the need for more aircraft carriers.24 But when the Kitty Hawk re-deployed, USAF land-based combat aircraft in Northeast Asia -- 180 were in Korea and Japan at the time -- went on hightened alert to compensate. This is a temporary expedient, but a very effective one for hedging against surprise attack. And it allowed us to exploit the Kitty Hawk's strategic mobility -- which is a fair part of the reason we invest in aircraft carriers. So, those who cried "carrier gap" when the Kitty Hawk redeployed inadvertently attacked the only sensible rationale for our possessing aircraft carriers.25

Rationalize unit training and personnel management
We need to better align the needs of operational deployment, unit training, and personnel development. Currently these needs grind relentlessly against each other, generating many of our readiness problems.26 This is primarily because our unit training regimes and personnel management practices are still geared toward preparing for very large -- indeed, global -- protracted wars. These regimes and practices assume that operational deployments will occur infrequently. And because all units are governed by this expectation, none can deploy without some considerable disruption.

Again, the USAF Aerospace Expeditionary Force concept is a step in the right direction; it rationalizes unit training and deployment needs. Turning to the Navy: it is designed with rotational deployment in mind. Thus, its scheduling practices integrate the demands of training and those of rotational deployment. Unfortunately, Navy rotational deployments, which serve global military presence, do not necessarily correspond to the need for temporary contingency deployments, which can pull units off their rotation schedules. The Navy needs to make better provisions for temporary, off-schedule deployments. Reducing the standard size of routine deployments would give the Navy a greater capacity to surge when needed without incurring readiness problems. The logic of this is straight-forward: reduce the demands of routine activity in order to better meet the demands of unscheduled deployments.

Another important measure to increase flexibility would be to transition from our current individual replacement system to a unit replacement system -- so that individuals would stay with units longer, improving readiness all around.27 But this entails dislodging our deep-seated orientation toward preparing for big, long wars. One consequence of this orientation is an officer corps that is too large by any historical standard. And it has been getting larger. The stated official requirement for officers and pilots is even larger; hence, the appearance of an officer "short-fall". But too many of our officers "pilot" desks and bloat command staffs.28

Having an officer corps whose size exceeds immediate needs is supposed to provide a foundation for the rapid and substantial expansion of the armed forces. This objective made more sense during the Cold War when the United States planned to field millions of troops within months of the outset of an East-West war. Today, it has lost its rationale. But it continues to impose costs -- and not only financial ones. Our over-sized officer corps leads to the rapid rotation of officers through short command assignments, which is deleterious to them, their families, and to the readiness of the units they lead.

8. Convergence

In one sense, the last thing the US military needs today is more money -- because it would be a disincentive to what is truly required: transformation. Rather than pressing for fundamental change, successive administrations and the congress throughout the 1990s have merely salved the maladaptation of our armed forces with emergency budget increases and supplemental funding. Political leaders have failed as well to encourage a realistic portrayal of threats. Rather than fitting our armed forces to the much improved security environment, US military strategy -- beginning with the Bush administration and continuing through President Clinton's tenure -- has elevated our military objectives and prescribed an expanded foreign policy role for the Pentagon. Implicit in this is a fundamental misreading of the nature of strategic competition and instability in the new era.

The failures of the 1990s define a reform program for the next president. Today, the prerequisites of a smaller, less expensive military converge with those of a more efficient, effective, and relevant military:

  • We need to think realistically about threats,
  • Trim some of our strategic ambitions,
  • Adapt our military to the tasks at hand, and, whatever else we do,
  • Shed excess infrastructure.


1. Richard Whittle, "Interview with William Cohen," Dallas Morning News, 12 March 2000

2. Pat Towell, Clinton's Defense Budget Increase Falls Short, Joint Chiefs Tell Senators, CQ Weekly, 9 January 1999; Thomas E. Ricks and Roberto Suro, "For Military's Budget Planners, Clinton Era Is Already History," International Herald Tribune, 6 June 2000; Charles Aldinger, "Military urges spending hike," Boston Globe, 28 September 2000.

3. James Schlesinger, "Raise the Anchor or Lower the Ship: Defense Budgeting and Planning", The National Interest (Fall 1998); Robert Kagan and William Kristol, "The Present Danger," The National Interest (Spring 2000); Frank Wolfe, "Johnson: Defense Budget Needs Steady Boost To Sustain Military," Defense Daily, 24 July 2000; Hunter Keeter, "Marine Commandant Calls For Defense Spending Increase," Defense Daily, August 16, 2000; Frank J. Gaffney Jr., "The 'Four Percent Solution' for military readiness," San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 August 2000.

4. "International Comparisons of Defence Expenditure and Military Manpower in 1985, 1997, and 1998," The Military Balance 1999-2000 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1999) pp. 300-306.

5. Congressional Budget Office, "Paying for Military Readiness and Upkeep: Trends in Operation And Maintenance Spending" (Washington DC: CBO, Sept 1997); Mortimer Zuckerman, "The Price of Power: The Military Should Spend More on Forces and Less on Facilities," US News and World Report, 6 September 1999; Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, "Defense Reform: More Smoke Than Fire," Strategic Review (Fall 1998).

6. Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller), National Defense Budget Estimates for FY2001,

7. Good overviews of environment shaping activities include Strategic Assessment 1998: Engaging Power for Peace (Washington DC: National Defense University, 1998); Strategic Assessment 1996: Instruments of US Power (Washington DC: National Defense University, 1996); and, US International Security Assistance Education and Training, FAS Arms Sales Monitoring Project web page;

8. General Accounting Office, Joint Training: Observations on the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Exercise Program (Washington DC: GAO, July 1998)

9. John Rudy and Ivan Eland, "Special Operations Military Training Abroad and Its Dangers," Cato Institute, Foreign Policy Briefs No. 53, 22 June 1999; and, Dana Priest, "US Military Builds Alliances Across Europe; Effort to Expand Influence and Security Called Risky," Washington Post, 14 December 1998.

10. For overviews and analyses of comparative international military potential see the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's SIPRI Yearbook 1999: Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). For more detailed analyses of several nations of special concern, see Eric Arnett, ed, Military Capacity and the Risk of War: China, India, Pakistan, and Iran (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

11. Lower cost options for combat aircraft modernization are explored in Steven M. Kosiak, Options for US Fighter Modernization (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, September 1999).

12. For an analysis of the impact of contingency operations on Air Force optempo see Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force: A Review and Diagnosis (Cambridge, MA: Project on Defense Alternatives, April 1999) section 4.3, "Optempo and the Burden of Operations Overseas;

13. For overviews of changing regional threat potentials see John Barry and Evan Thomas, "Does America Need Faster Striking Power or Bigger Guns?" Newsweek, 22 November 1999; General Accounting Office, Defense Acquisitions: Reduced Threat Not Reflected in Antiarmor Weapon Acquisitions, GAO/NSIAD-99-105 (Washington DC: GAO, July 1999); Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, "Backwards into the Future: How the Quadrennial Defense Review Prepares America for the Wrong Century," PDA Briefing Memo 13, June 1997;; and Russell Travers, "A New Millennium and a Strategic Breathing Space," Washington Quarterly (Spring 1997).

14. General Accounting Office, Opportunities for the Army to Reduce Risk in Executing the Military Strategy, GAO/NSIAD-99-47 (Washington DC: GAO, March 1999)

15. Robert Holzer, "New Warfare Requirements May Demand Larger Fleet," Navy Times, 7 June 1999.

16. James Kitfield, "To Halt An Enemy", Air Force Magazine (January 1998)

17. Statistical Information and Analysis Division, Directorate for Information Operations and Reports, Military Personnel.

18. William H. McMichael, "General Isn't Afraid to Challenge the Chain of Command," Daily Press, 14 April 1997

19. Statistical Information and Analysis Division, Military Personnel, op. cit.

20. For a critical analysis of the Army initiative to build an all-wheel "full spectrum" force see Lutz Unterseher, "Wheels or Tracks? On the 'Lightness' of Military Expeditions", PDA Briefing Memo #16, July 2000;

21. Douglas A. Macgregor, Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century (Westport CT: Praeger, 1997); Lt. General Frederic J. Brown, USA (Ret.), The US Army in Transition II: Landpower in the Information Age (Washington: Brassey's, 1993)

22. Col. Douglas Macgregor, "Command and Control for Joint Strategic Action", Joint Force Quarterly (Autumn/Winter 1998-1999); Kenneth Allard, "Interoperability Is Hilt of Information Based Sword", C4I News, 6 November 1997.

23. For an analysis of how asset management problems has contributed to Air Force readiness problems see Conetta and Knight, The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force: A Review and Diagnosis, section 4.3.2, "Managing Operational Tempo";

24. Floyd Spence, Military Readiness Review, Volume 1, Issue 1, April 1999; available at:; Richard Newman, "When Two Wars Are Too Many," US News and World Report, 19 April 1999, page 26; Bradley Graham, "Balkans Action Begins to Strain US Forces," Washington Post, 7 April 1999, page A15; Otto Kreisher, "Top Army, Marine Commanders At Odds Over Use of Carrier," San Diego Union-Tribune (Copley News Service), 3 April 1999, page 19.

25. For an analysis of the Kitty Hawk incident and its meaning see "Alledged Carrier Gap is Out to Sea", PDA Briefing Memo 15, April 1999;

26. John C.F. Tillson, Reducing the Impact of Tempo, IDA Paper P-3508, Institute for Defense Analysis, October 1999;

27. Col. Douglas Macgregor outlines this problem and solution in a series of slide presentations, The Macgregor Briefings: An Information Age Vision for the US Army, available on the PDA web site at See slide presentation 3, "Force Structure; Readiness and Personnel Issues; Joint Operational Architecture; Command and Control"

28. Franklin C. (Chuck) Spinney, "Sayen Report: Officer Bloat Creates the Shortage of Captains", Defense and the National Interest web site, 16 July 2000;; on pilot requirements and reputed shortage see Conetta and Knight, The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force: A Review and Diagnosis, section 3, "Mid-term problems: The USAF Pilot Shortage;

Citation: Carl Conetta, Toward a Smaller, More Efficient, and More Relevant US Military, Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #17. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, October 2000.

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