A US army that is leaner but stronger
Financial Times, February 26, 2014
Hagel’s vision is right – but needs the backing of Congress
It is never easy to slim the Pentagon behemoth. In times of emergency, such as after the 9/11 attacks, US defence spending tends to balloon rapidly. In times of relative calm, previous gains are rarely clawed back. Chuck Hagel, the Pentagon chief, this week broke with the trend, outlining a vision for a leaner US defence posture. It is a vision to be applauded.
The defence secretary’s budget unveiled a reduction in US forces to just 440,000 – its lowest since before Pearl Harbor. From now on, the US would be equipped to fight just one conventional war rather than two simultaneously. Yet it would extend its technological edge and remain more powerful than the combined capability of the next few powers in the world rankings. Mr Hagel’s vision makes sense as far as it goes. However, sketching it out was the easy part. Now he must persuade Congress to put it into effect.
The case for a smaller US army is strong. After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public has little appetite for prolonged foreign occupations. Results on the ground offer little evidence that they have been worth the expense in lives and money. This week President Barack Obama told Hamid Karzai that the US would consider withdrawing altogether from Afghanistan by the end of this year unless Kabul agreed to a treaty putting the US presence on a legal footing. Such an agreement looks remote. After the deaths of 2,313 US personnel and more than $1tn in expenditure, this is a terrible return on investment.
The US army was never equipped to build civil societies in faraway lands. But it will continue to win wars. A slimmer army only reflects the exponential growth in military technology. In 2001, it cost $2,300 to equip a US marine. That has since risen tenfold. The age of the underequipped “grunt” is over. The US army can achieve more with fewer people.
It can also achieve more with a far leaner system of procurement. Mr Hagel offered some cuts to overextended weapons programmes – notably the Combat Littoral Ship, which is billions of dollars over budget and vulnerable to Chinese anti-ship missiles. He also promised to close down the antiquated A10 attack aircraft fleet. But he stopped short of more radical steps to curb the hugely expensive F35 joint strike fighter programme, or wind down the US aircraft carrier fleet from 11 battle groups to 10. Such decisions cannot be ducked. Mr Hagel rightly proposed more spending on US special operations forces and on cyber defence. Both are smart investments against the threats of the future. But he will need to convince Congress to close outdated – but job-generating – weapons systems in order to free up the resources. That political battle has yet to be joined.
In an election year, Pentagon budgets usually go up. Mr Hagel is going against the grain by proposing a virtual freeze on military pay and a reduction in benefits in advance of midterm polls. He has set himself an ambitious task. Leaders in Congress have already signalled they will ignore Mr Hagel’s budget and produce a more lavish one of their own. Critics of his proposal have quite wrongly said it would reduce America’s ability to defend itself and embolden its enemies.
Even in less fiscally austere times, the case for a less bloated Pentagon would be overwhelming. It is supported by US military chiefs and by successive defence secretaries, both Republican and Democratic. Those who fight America’s wars do not mistake waste and duplication for military readiness. Congress specialises in such myopia. It is now up to Mr Hagel and the White House to take the case to the US public. The future of the Pentagon is far too important to be left to business as usual on Capitol Hill.
[Comment by the Web Administrator: This Editorial illustrates how terms and concepts are abused to convey an ideology]