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More Military Than We Need: "Wild Card" Insurance and Unfair Fights

Neta C. Crawford
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

While most attention on the United States military in recent weeks has been on B-52 pilot Kelly Flinn and other sex-related scandals, what should have been the top defense-related story - the Pentagon's release of the Report on the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) went almost unremarked by comparison. The boldest proposal in the QDR - a second round of base-closings, has received the most attention - but this is ultimately not the important recommendation in the QDR and Pentagon officials are probably relieved that so little attention has focused on the QDR.

Mandated by Congress last year, the QDR report promised a "fundamental and comprehensive examination of America's defense needs from 1997 to 2015" that is "intended to provide a blueprint for a strategy-based, balanced, and affordable defense program." Does it deliver on these promises? Most observers say no and the loudest critics are those on the right. They argue that modest cuts proposed in the QDR, coupled with prior restructuring, will leave the U.S. unready to meet current and future military challenges.

On the contrary, like the three previous Post-Cold War military reviews undertaken by the Pentagon for Presidents Bush and Clinton, the QDR did not fundamentally rethink U.S. military strategy for what the military recognizes is a radically different global environment. Nor did the Pentagon appear to consider all the options for achieving a prudent and affordable military strategy. Rather, the QDR is full of contradiction. Congress, and the National Defense Panel charged with reviewing the Pentagon's report, ought to reject the QDR and ask for the following:

1. A More Appropriate Strategy

While noting our enormous military superiority on one hand, the QDR says the U.S. must have a military that is able to fight two major wars nearly simultaneously. In other words, while emphasizing that the U.S. remains the only superpower and noting that any country's efforts to achieve military superpower status will be observed well in advance - e.g. "China's efforts to modernize its forces and improve its power projection capabilities will not go unnoticed" - the QDR stresses the dangers faced by the U.S.

Since there is no superpower "near peer" on the horizon, the QDR focuses on threats posed by medium powers. As with the Pentagon's 1993 Bottom Up Review, the QDR cites Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as most likely threats for major war - "Between now and 2015, it is reasonable to assume that more than one aspiring regional power will have both the desire and the means to challenge U.S. interest militarily" - while ignoring the fact that most country's military capabilities have declined, not grown in recent years.

Perhaps because it cannot plausibly find a "near peer" and the two "nearly simultaneous" major regional war scenario is so incredible to most observers, the QDR describes a host of smaller scale contingencies, what it calls "asymmetric" threats, and "wild card scenarios" to the list of potential threats. To meet this combination of unlikely threats the Pentagon plans to invest in more high technology while making cuts in the number of active duty and reserve troops. As Defense Secretary Cohen says, "In combat we do not want a fair fight - we want capabilities that will give us a decisive advantage."

The U.S. certainly does have an advantage. But how will the Pentagon use advanced bombers, fighters, missiles, and other new arms to stop "international organized crime," "migrants," "information warfare," "famine," and "illegal drugs"? Clearly, most of these asymmetric threats are not properly addressed by military force, but would be more amenable to sanctions, diplomacy, foreign aid, development assistance, arms control, or combinations of these tools. Yet, while acknowledging the existence of other instruments of international influence the QDR then proceeds as if the only tool is military force.

Bottom Line: The Pentagon needs to tighten up their strategy and clarify the relationship between interest, threats and forces. The two nearly simultaneous regional war scenario is implausible at best. Even the several smaller scale contingencies described by the Pentagon do not demand the additional capabilities equivalent to fighting a second Persian Gulf-scale war "nearly simultaneously". Further, the Pentagon's goal of "shaping the international environment" is more appropriately left to the State Department and President.

U.S. military strategy might more plausibly be configured to fight one major regional war. Such a reconfiguration would save billions of dollars and focus the Pentagon on military rather than crime fighting or political missions for which military force is ill-suited in the first place.

2. Further Reduction of the Active Duty Military

The QDR proposes modest cuts in active duty (90,000) and reserve (65,000) troop strength, that would still leave the U.S. military with over 1,360,000 in active duty forces and 835,000 in the reserves. Moreover, the plan calls for maintaining 100,000 troops each in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. If downsized to meet the criteria of preparing for one major regional contingency the active duty military could obviously be cut much more.

However, cutting active duty and reserve forces should not be confused with an emphasis on high technology. The QDR trades humans for high tech. This ignores the fact that while the U.S. military is certainly the best equipped in the world, it is also the most highly skilled and best trained. The emphasis on high quality training and joint operations among the services should continue in order to keep the U.S. military's edge in this area.

Bottom line: Active duty forces could be cut to one million by 2001, supplemented by reserves of 500,000.

3. Store Military Equipment and Curb Arms Exports

The QDR plans to keep 12 aircraft carrier battlegroups despite the fact that there is no threat that justifies so many carriers. And while cutting the number of attack submarines from 73 to 50, the QDR fails to justify even this smaller number. What are these subs to attack? None of the threat states mentioned in the QDR have large naval forces. Similarly, the U.S. has acknowledged air superiority, but the QDR provides for purchasing advanced new attack aircraft. Only the continued efforts of the U.S. defense industry to export their wares could lead to a reversal of U.S. air superiority.

Prevailing Pentagon wisdom stresses high technology. Consistent with this, the QDR proposes upgrades and modernization with an emphasis on high technology forces, despite the fact that in nearly every technology, U.S. military forces are far ahead of those in the rest of the world.

Rather than spending billions to upgrade and modernize weapons, many types of military equipment, from aircraft carriers to fighter attack aircraft, could be put in storage and taken out as needed. The U.S. has done this in the past with its forces. With proper storage and maintenance, military equipment can be re-activated from storage much more quickly than organizing the production of new weapons. Downsizing of active duty forces will create a surplus of equipment available for storage.

Bottom Line: Store surplus weapons and reactivate them out of storage as needed. Such a strategy must be coupled with vigorous international arms control efforts.

4. Encourage Military Industrial Conversion and Reduce Arms Exports

The U.S. is the world's premier weapons supplier because U.S. weapons are generally the best. If the U.S. were to downsize along the lines I propose, decreasing domestic consumption of weapons will increase the incentive for military industry to export arms because large numbers of exports keep per unit costs down and profits high. Ironically, in the long run, arms exports undermine U.S. military superiority since we may have to face those weapons, or ones based on their designs, sometime in the future.

While arms industries are large profitable businesses, and exports alone generate about $15 billion each year, these corporations ought to be able to build commodities that others around the globe want to buy. Economic conversion may not yield as much profit for shareholders, but current defense-industrial profits are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, and all of us will benefit if these industries convert.

Bottom Line: Though some (much reduced) military industry is essential, it is possible to preserve U.S. military technological superiority by curbing exports and supporting global arms control processes. Economic conversion can only make the U.S. economy stronger.

5. Completely Eliminate Money for National Missile Defense

The threat of nuclear war using ballistic missiles is much diminished since the end of the Cold War, yet the QDR proposes increasing spending for National Missile Defense by about $2 billion. This, despite the fact that there is little chance of making such a defense against ballistic missiles work. The best defense against nuclear ballistic missile attack is non-proliferation efforts. If those efforts fail, it is unlikely that a missile defense system could work.

Bottom Line: The National Missile Defense Program is unnecessary, unlikely to work, and extremely expensive. More resources should go to arms control and the worldwide control of fissile materials.

6. Open Up the Defense Review Process

The Quadrennial Defense Review was undertaken by the Pentagon, and captains of military industries have a very large role in the National Defense Panel charged with evaluating the QDR. Nearly all parties would be better served if a more independent assessment of U.S. military requirements was undertaken. While a more open process would undoubtedly expose strongly divergent views about appropriate military forces, the result would probably be a leaner, more efficient, U.S. military.

Bottom Line: The Congressional Research Service should be directed by Congress to appoint independent panels to conduct reviews of military strategy. The Armed Services should not be tasked with evaluating themselves, nor should defense industries have a large role in the process.

In sum, while it is true that the result of Post-Cold War restructuring has been some downsizing since the Soviet Union's demise, the U.S. military remains much larger and more baroque than needed to defend against most likely threats to U.S. vital interests. The QDR inflates military threats to the U.S. and, as a result, urges forces that are too large and unnecessarily high-tech. To use the Pentagon's own metaphor, the QDR is "over-insurance" for unlikely contingencies that the U.S. public (not withstanding defense contractors) can ill afford. Moreover, the QDR ignores how its own strategies may make the world a more, not less, dangerous place.

Neta C. Crawford, "More Military Than We Need: "Wild Card" Insurance and Unfair Fights" June 1997

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