The Risks Of Military Drawdowns By James Kitfield

DeM Banter: Great piece with some stellar quotes from senior leaders. As is the case with just about everything today…there are no easy answers…things have to change, but the solutions are not clear. As I read, I have to ponder what does this mean for the next generation of military leaders…particularly those cadets in college today? What sort of skills will we need…one thing for sure… we will need leaders with a highly diverse skill set.

National Journal
July 28, 2012

Washington nearly always gets drawdowns wrong — paving the way for military calamity. Will it botch this one, too?

On a recent trip to Capitol Hill, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey got into a sharp private exchange with a member of Congress he declines to name. The lawmaker warned the general that if attempts to downsize the military for austere times render it “hollow” once again, he’d have only himself, not Congress, to blame.

Dempsey, who cut his teeth as a young Army officer in the 1970s, was having none of it. Every time Congress tells the Joint Chiefs they can’t make even minor adjustments to military pay and health care to counter ballooning personnel costs, Dempsey countered, or refuses to let the military shutter unneeded bases, or forces it to buy unwanted aircraft and tanks, then Congress helps to hollow the force. “I can’t keep the force in balance unless you give me the ability to do so,” Dempsey recalls saying.

The argument showed just how hard it will be for Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to steer the military through the tricky transition between war and what comes after. The Pentagon is set to cut 100,000 ground forces and $487 billion over 10 years (without the budget sequester, which would raise the dollar figure to roughly $1 trillion). They must work out how to do so without compromising their ability to maintain America’s national security.

Unfortunately, almost without exception, the United States has gotten that transition wrong. After every “war to end all wars,” the American people have demanded a “peace dividend” that often cuts too deep for too long, ruining military preparedness and goading opportunistic foes. That helps explain the Soviet outlook in 1979, after the Pentagon’s dramatic post-Vietnam drawdown. First, in November, Iran’s revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 hostages. A month later, sensing weakness, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Two implacable foes were suddenly within easy reach of America’s energy jugular. The Soviets ceased to see the United States as weak only after Washington undertook the largest peacetime defense buildup in history, which tripled the national debt during the Reagan years.

A botched drawdown means that, when the bugles once again blare, brave but unprepared troops are sent back into battle. That’s why American troops have been so badly bloodied in the first battles of past wars, whether at Kasserine Pass in North Africa at the outset of World War II, with Task Force Smith in Korea, or in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam. The inept Desert One attempt to rescue the hostages in Tehran killed eight servicemen and cost two aircraft.

The cycle repeated itself during the 1990s. Not only did the reconfigured post-Cold War defense apparatus fail to anticipate Sept. 11, 2001, but U.S. forces sent to invade Iraq in 2003 were also unprepared for the insurgency they confronted there. Had insurgents provoked a civil war, which seemed likely in 2006 and 2007, Operation Iraqi Freedom could have represented the worst U.S. military setback since Vietnam.

And this drawdown will likely prove even more challenging than its predecessors, say national-security and military experts. First, partisan gridlock — which Panetta calls “one of the greatest dangers to national security” — threatens the Pentagon with sequestration unless the other political party blinks. Second, the United States is laden with far more debt now than during previous retrenchments. As Dempsey’s spat with the lawmaker suggests, Congress might trade intelligent cuts in defense spending (closing unneeded bases, canceling unaffordable weapons programs, cutting excess troops) for good politics. In the current presidential debate, the two sides cannot even agree on whether a military drawdown is necessary.

Moreover, constant combat has burdened the small volunteer force for more than a decade, and the stress fractures are showing. It will take years to mend the aging equipment; pathologies associated with posttraumatic stress disorder are rampant; and personnel costs have ballooned to nearly $1 million per combat-deployed soldier per year. Meanwhile, troops will still be fighting, and dying, in Afghanistan through 2014. “I constantly have to remind people that the war is not over and that we are still training and equipping soldiers and sending them to fight,” says Lt. Gen. John Campbell, who, as the Army’s head of strategic plans, is helping to chart the coming drawdown and who has a son deployed in Afghanistan.

Hardest of all for planners like Campbell: The strategic landscape today is extremely unpredictable. China has used America’s lost decade of war to accelerate its economic and military ascendancy — and, this time, any perception of U.S. weakness could tempt Beijing into provocative behavior in, say, the Taiwan Straits or the South China Sea. Nuclear-armed North Korea is going through an uncertain leadership transition. Islamic groups continue to torment Afghanistan and Pakistan, even as their movement takes root in the ungoverned spaces of North Africa. Iran seeks nuclear weapons, Syria fights a civil war, and the Arab Spring revolutions have toppled regimes throughout the Middle East, with an unknown impact on long-term stability and U.S. interests. Narco-mafias destabilize Latin America. And cyberwarfare could, many experts say, represent the next Pearl Harbor.

“Today’s drawdown is much more challenging than the 1990s, in part because security threats are not only increasing in number and scale but also shifting in form,” says Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Add a global financial crisis that has prompted Western allies to slash defense budgets, he says, and this period of retraction looks perilous even by historical standards.

Still, understanding the pitfalls of previous drawdowns could help the Pentagon avoid them this time. Obviously, strategists must also decipher the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan to inform decisions on how they should shrink U.S. forces. But above all else, planners should avoid such terms as “peace dividend,” “procurement holiday,” and “strategic pause.” Historians call these epochs the “interwar years,” and they haven’t been wrong yet. Handled poorly, they can end in catastrophe.

The hollow army

Drawdowns are always conducted in the shadow of conflicts past, not the ones yet to come — and therein lies the danger. After victory, planners tend to prepare for the last war, only better and with a smaller force. In the shadow of defeat, the urge is equally powerful to steer the military away from similar conflicts. Something like that happened after Vietnam.

The most fateful decision of that drawdown was President Nixon’s shift to an all-volunteer force in 1973; he eliminated the draft to defuse the antiwar protests that had bedeviled his presidency. As originally conceived, the volunteer military was designed as a downsized core around which the Pentagon would mobilize with a reinstated draft if and when it needed to.

After extricating their forces from Vietnam’s jungles, the generals focused narrowly on the Soviet Union. The counterinsurgency lessons learned in Vietnam atrophied and were largely expunged from the training curricula of conventional forces. Defense cuts hit operations and maintenance, training, and other “readiness” accounts that nurture military preparedness. And the Pentagon found it much harder and pricier to assemble a high-quality volunteer force than it had anticipated. In 1980, for instance, only 50 percent of Army recruits had even a high school education, and 40 percent were yanked from regular duty for disciplinary problems or unsuitability before completing their first enlistment. Meanwhile, the Army grew from 16 to 18 divisions during the 1970s to deter the massive Soviet army, stretching limited manpower over the skeleton of a larger force structure. By 1980, the effect of those decisions was apparent: Only four of 10 active-duty Army divisions in the United States were rated “ready” to deploy.

When members of Congress asked Army Chief of Staff Edward (Shy) Meyer at a 1980 hearing to characterize the Army’s status, he told them what he had already informed President Carter privately. “Basically, what we have is a hollow Army.” (That was the subject of Dempsey’s spat in Congress.) The Pentagon had been forced to cut too deep for too long; it faced a manpower crisis with the draft gone; and it had jettisoned the lessons of an unconventional war it lost to focus instead on a war it would never actually fight. It allowed the pillars of military capability — force structure, equipment, readiness, and manpower — to become unbalanced, favoring force structure (Army divisions, Air Force squadrons, Navy ships) and modernization (new weapons) at the expense of readiness (training to keep personnel motivated and prepared), operations, and equipment maintenance. By 1979, military pay had become so constrained that junior enlistees with small families subsisted below the poverty level.

The consequences were clear by decade’s end. The shah’s regime in Iran had fallen, the Soviets had taken Afghanistan, and the U.S. military looked inept in a failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. “I said the Army was hollow because it was grossly inadequate to the threats we faced in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East,” Meyer says today. The challenge now is more diffuse: Instead of facing a monolithic Soviet Union, he says, “the only sure thing is that the next conflict will almost surely come as a surprise.”

To avoid the mistake of cutting defense budgets too deep for too long, Meyer says, Pentagon leaders need to articulate a narrative that convinces Americans — and especially their representatives in Washington — that the nation still faces potent threats. “The good news is that the American people hold the U.S. military in much higher regard today than after Vietnam, and that is critical both to attracting good people to serve and in winning the support of Congress,” he says. But Meyer warns of “hyper-partisanship” on the Hill: “If the Pentagon can’t win bipartisan support for their strategy for drawing down, every member of Congress will feel free to poke holes in it.”

A strategic pause

After winning the Cold War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. military had a better story line for its second drawdown of the volunteer era. But the United States faced a recession and a national debt that had grown from $900 billion to $2.8 trillion during President Reagan’s tenure, thanks to the defense buildup and tax cuts. Americans wanted a “peace dividend,” and the Clinton administration responded by shrinking the Cold War military by roughly one-third. As an uncontested superpower, it reasoned that the nation could enter a “strategic pause” from great-power competition and defer modernization for much of a 1990s “procurement holiday.”

After the success of Operation Desert Storm, the military also arguably fell into the trap, once again, of wanting to refight the last war, only better. It focused on honing the high-intensity maneuver warfare that thrashed Iraqi forces in 1991 (and 2003). In the meantime, President Clinton tasked the military with peacemaking, nation-building, and stability operations (in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia), as well as limited air wars (Kosovo and the Iraqi “no-fly” zones). Those missions made the armed services more deployable and expeditionary, but after each operation, military planners largely wiped the “lessons learned” slate clean, preferring to focus on high-intensity conventional operations rather than unsatisfying “operations other than war,” as generals call it.

By the end of that drawdown, U.S. military leaders were confronted with an equipment arsenal aged by unexpected use and the procurement holiday. By 2000, Air Force fighters were 14 years old on average, the tanker/airlift fleet was roughly 25 years old, and 1960s-era B-52 bombers constituted one-third of the long-range bomber fleet. Pockets of inexperience persisted at certain ranks, thanks to retirement incentives accepted by too many talented captains and mid-career sergeants: Between 1995 and 2000, for instance, the attrition rate for Army captains nearly doubled, from 6.4 percent to an unsustainable 13 percent. The realization was also growing that the “strategic pause” never really materialized.

“The ‘New World Order’ some people talked about at the end of the Cold War was long on ‘new’ and short on ‘order,’ because from the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 to the moment we were hit on 9/11 by a surprise attack no one saw coming, we were engaged in operations in a world supposedly ‘at peace,’ ” says Gen. Dennis Reimer, the Army chief of staff from 1995 to ’99. The lesson: “The ‘strategic pause’ you expect never really happens.… Especially in today’s complex and dangerous world, it’s impossible to predict when or where your next fight is going to come.”

So when terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, sparking a decade of conflict, planners were unprepared. The military had to rely on an arsenal aged by unexpected use and the procurement holiday, guided by conventional-warfare doctrines that were poorly suited for the counterinsurgency campaigns the U.S. was about to fight.

Known unknowns

Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, frequently tells subordinates to “beware the Black Swan” — that is, to expect the unexpected. He knows from personal experience what it’s like to be caught unaware.

In April 2004, the entire Operation Iraqi Freedom campaign was balanced on a knife’s edge. Dempsey, then a major general, commanded the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, trying with just 40,000 troops to keep a lid on the largely ungoverned metropolis of more than 7 million people. Suddenly, uprisings began to ignite across Iraq, first in the Sunni stronghold of Falluja and then in the southern Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, where armed followers of cleric Moktada al-Sadr held sway. Civil war loomed. At the same time, Qaida terrorist bombings spooked Spain and other allies into withdrawing their troops from the war, rattling a shaky multinational coalition. Iraq was in danger of spinning out of control. An Army that prided itself on being on the absolute leading edge of technology was suddenly caught as strangers in a strange land, facing simultaneous uprisings that no one saw coming.

The U.S. military simply lacked the expertise to cope with insurgency and sectarian war. After all, architects of the post-Vietnam drawdown had expunged the lessons of that eight-year counterinsurgency from the Army’s institutional memory, and the knowledge base was never replenished. “Psychologically, the organization wasn’t too interested in retaining lessons from a conflict many people considered a failure,” Dempsey tells National Journal. “So when I get to Baghdad, I’m trying to write a [conventional-war] campaign plan for a city of 7 million people scattered over 70,000 square miles. That’s when it occurred to me that we hadn’t spent nearly enough time understanding the complexity of the environment we found ourselves in.”

The Army raced to adapt. At the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Gen. David Petraeus set about rewriting the Army’s counterinsurgency manual. He highlighted the need to win local support, build institutions of local governance, and prop up local security forces. Meanwhile, under new Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Pentagon went on a procurement crash course, rushing explosive-resistant armored vehicles and drones out to the war theater. Petraeus later implemented his own doctrine in the successful Iraq “surge,” perhaps the most dramatic reversal of battlefield misfortune since Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Inchon during the Korean War.

“No major military in history has restored that knowledge base and doctrine and then executed it in just the few years it took in Iraq,” says Don Snider, a visiting professor in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. Because that process normally takes at least a decade, the near-failure in Iraq can be traced back at least to the 1990s drawdown. “The Army as a profession should never be caught so off-guard, lacking the expert knowledge and skill sets it needed to accomplish the mission it was given in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Never forget

In the recently released study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff titled “Decade of War: Enduring Lessons From the Past Decade of War,” the first takeaway goes directly to the military’s Black Swan moment. “In operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a failure to recognize, acknowledge, and accurately define the operational environment led to a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions, and goals.” Lesson No. 2 is equally unsparing. “Conventional warfare approaches often were ineffective when applied to operations other than major combat.”

A distillation of 46 separate studies, “Decade of War” promises that the armed forces will remember what they learned rather than consign the lessons to a chapter in a war-college textbook. Even more important, the report acknowledges that a smaller force must still have a full spectrum of capabilities and it cannot have a blind spot for counterinsurgency that nearly proved disastrous. “The U.S. military did well those missions it had prepared for, such as the initial three-week invasion of Iraq, and less well in those missions it had not trained and prepared for, which was the counterinsurgency part we struggled with,” says Marine Lt. Gen. George Flynn, who organized the study for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Given the Pentagon’s perfect record of predicting when, where, and how it will fight next — “100 percent wrong, 100 percent of the time” says Flynn — the smaller, full-spectrum force will need to internalize many of the attributes of its wartime counterpart, with streamlined systems for rewriting doctrine, rapidly fielding equipment, and recalibrating training. “That ability to rapidly adapt has to be a primary attribute of a downsized force,” Flynn says. And the military will need to retain its most combat-seasoned leaders to remain adaptable.

The Army is trying to reflect on those lessons as it prepares to pare 80,000 troops from its ranks, according to Gen. Campbell. To build regional and cultural expertise, it will align combat brigades with certain geographic commands. It will strengthen the tight bond between conventional units and special operations forces, forged over a decade of counterinsurgency warfare, by training and deploying them together. It will try to avoid sweeping “reductions in force” and compulsory retirements (like the one that occurred during the 1990s) by cutting mostly through normal attrition. Above all, the Army will seek to avoid cuts in “readiness” accounts that support exercises, training, professionalism, and morale.

Dark clouds

All drawdowns begin with the best intentions. They derail because of pressures that are often outside the Pentagon’s control. The coming drawdown is one of the shallowest in history: That $487 cut over 10 years (assuming that the Pentagon dodges another $500 billion in sequestration) represents just an 8 percent net reduction, compared with an average 30 percent in the post-Vietnam and post-Cold War drawdowns. But given America’s debt crisis and its isolationist mood, few experts believe the current plan is the final word. “Further significant cuts are almost inevitable,” says Gordon Adams, a former associate director for national security at the Office of Management and Budget. “Polls consistently show that the public wants to bring the boys and girls in uniform back home and cut the defense budget much more than anything now being contemplated.”

Even to live within the means outlined in the current plan, Pentagon planners were forced to make difficult trade-offs and questionable assumptions. The Obama administration’s strategic guidance has called for a “rebalancing” of forces toward Asia as a hedge against China, but that strategy will rely on naval forces that have shrunk over the past decade and air forces that are aging thanks to constant use and the 1990s “procurement holiday.” The average age of a B-52 bomber is nearly 50. Long-range bombers are 35 years old on average; midair refueling tankers are 49 years old; and fighter aircraft are 22 years old. Upgrades have kept those aircraft current. “But at some point you have to ask whether the average citizen would want to rely on a 50-year-old car as their major mode of transport,” says Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Miller, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs. “The answer is no.”

To pivot toward Asia, the Pentagon will have to withdraw two combat brigades from Europe and plan for only an “economy of force” presence in Latin America and in Africa, with troops who rotate in for temporary operations rather than remaining permanently deployed there, as the ones in Europe, South Korea, and Japan do. To cut some 100,000 ground forces, the Pentagon also had to assume that the United States will not become enmeshed in another protracted, manpower-intensive campaign (counterinsurgency, nation-building) in the foreseeable future.

When historians look back on this era of war and retrenchment, the evolution of the all-volunteer force will stand out. Although the troops performed superbly and proved surprisingly resilient, less than 1 percent of the population bore the immense burdens of fighting. Increasingly, that force resembles an American Foreign Legion that distances the public and their political representatives from the consequences of war. Over a decade of conflict, the all-volunteer force also proved extraordinarily expensive; the cost per person in the active-duty force jumped an unsustainable 46 percent (adjusting for inflation). As a study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments noted recently, if manpower costs continue to increase at that rate and the overall defense budget grew commensurate with inflation, military personnel expenses will consume the entire defense budget by 2039.

Of course, unanticipated challenges associated with the all-volunteer force helped skew the post-Vietnam and post-Cold War drawdowns. As did a war-weary American public, a balky Congress, and far-away adversaries searching for weaknesses. If the adage holds that history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes, then that narrative has an eerily familiar ring. Historians know just how it ends.

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