Current and former military leaders are used to following orders. “Take that hill,” or “Secure that village,” followed by “Yes, sir!” (or ma’am). It is what they’ve done all of their lives. Now, the order is “Reduce that budget,” so of course their response has been “Yes, Congress!” But as the military responds to this order to crunch the numbers, it is now explaining to political leaders that there is an unexpected role reversal they must accept. So, U.S. representatives and senators better pay close attention to what they’re saying.
Up until now, elected officials, in consultation with military and intelligence experts, have made strategic national decisions about the role of the United States in global security. The U.S. Defense Department requested a budget based on the personnel, equipment and training it would need to ensure the appropriate actions could be taken to accomplish specific missions and to be prepared to respond rapidly to emergency situations; Congress then approved the requisite resources. Following this course of action has resulted in a stellar military force.
But a comment from Vice Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, USN, director for operations (J-3), Joint Staff, during a panel at East: Joint Warfighting 2013 succinctly pointed out that Congress’ insistence to slash dollars will force this tried-and-true process to make an about-face. Now, it will be the military leaders who determine what they can accomplish with the resources they are given, and national policy makers will have little choice but to accept their assessment or allocate additional resources, said the admiral.
Adm. Tidd’s opinion is valid, and the repercussions could seriously endanger global security. Consider one aspect of operating within rigid budget constraints: personnel. This is by far the lion’s share of military expenses, and one scenario proposes shrinking the U.S. Army from more than 540,000 active duty soldiers to 490,000 by 2017 and 420,000 in future years. Even with the aid of unmanned systems and other advanced technologies that reduce the need for staffing, the service cannot remain as strong with 50,000 fewer warfighters. These professionals are not just sitting around collecting a paycheck today; they are keeping this nation safe in a very volatile world.
Consider yet another element of reducing the budget: cuts to equipment maintenance. Owners of old cars know that if they don’t regularly replace parts and change engine fluids, either the automobile will conk out—usually on some lonely road—or cost twice as much to repair. Why would military equipment perform any differently when neglected?
The new paradigm that Adm. Tidd described is really not all that different than making purchases in the commercial world. House hunters can describe their dream home to a real estate agent, but it is the real estate agent who tells them which houses they can afford. And, when their dream meets reality, compromising must begin.
The bottom line is that Adm. Tidd was absolutely correct when he described the new era of how the United States supports global security missions. Political leaders will have to talk less and listen more. They will encounter limits to their military options because of the budget cuts they endorsed. And they will have to determine at what point they must compromise so that national security is not an unaffordable dream but rather a reality.