The Future of the U.S. Military

Commentary | January 19, 2012

The Obama administration recently announced a revision of U.S. military strategy (click here to read the official summary). The strategy, which will not be finalized until the national budget is submitted in February 2012, is set to de-emphasize the role of the Army and Marines and rely more heavily on the Navy and Air Force. Regionally, the strategy will result in a reduction of forces in Europe and an increase in the Middle East and China.

Former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General (ret.) T. Michael Moseley spoke with EWI’s Thomas Lynch about the history of defense spending and the possible impact of spending cuts. Excerpts from his remarks:


On the Precedent for U.S. Defense Cuts:

Let’s think back and get some context. During the Kennedy administration, the percentage of the Department of Defense budget in U.S. GDP was between 10% and 15 %. After Saigon fell in April 1975, we went through a very interesting period of adjustments of defense budgets up through the Carter administration. During this period, the U.S. government was struggling with a containment policy of the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent China. Massive amounts of defense capabilities began to dwindle during the Carter administration. While I was at Holloman Air Force Base in the ‘70s, we would have an entire wing of airplanes but only one squadron—typically 12-24 aircraft—would have engines in them; that is a hollow force. During that period, the Army, Navy, and Marines rarely went out to practice.

The Reagan administration, recognizing the fact of a hollow military after Vietnam, initiated a defense build-up which led to the force structure in place during operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield. The George H.W. Bush administration maintained a similar defense budget, but then almost zero new aircraft were bought under the Clinton administration; this is all despite major campaigns (Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, etc) while still sitting in Korea and Europe. From the beginning of the George W. Bush administration until 9/11, there was a serious discussion on transforming the Department of Defense to being smaller, lighter and more lethal, which was and still is a good discussion to have.


On U.S. Military Capabilities and Expenditures:

Since 1942, the stated mission of the U. S. military has been to be able to conduct full spectrum operations in multiple operations in multiple places simultaneously. The American leadership, since August 1945, has had a zero percent success rate in predicting where we’re going to go next. As a result, most U.S. national security players hold that we need to provide a capability-based assessment of what we might need, not a threat-based assessment; this gets to fighting multiple combat operations in multiple locations.

If I were still a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I would ask the president “what do you want us to do?” That is the grand strategy question. It is a laughable fallacy for people to criticize the fact that the next 12 militaries in line don’t spend as much as the United States. The next 12 militaries in line are not tasked by their leadership to maintain strategic order on a global scale. Number eight or nine does not have to maintain high-end technologies or maintain the ability for global reach or global power. Whether we want to or not, the United States is looked at as that global power. “Policeman” or “sheriff” is not the right metaphor. The world looks at the United States to be a keeper of order, to be able to deter, dissuade, or persuade—all activities that end up, hopefully, non-kinetic.


On the report’s conclusion that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations:” 

From 2001 to today we have spent a significant amount of money that has not been spent on our people, our infrastructure, our operation and maintenance accounts, or on our investment accounts for new equipment.

We can now say we are not looking to be able to conduct major combat operations in multiple locations, but we still want to be able to focus on counterinsurgency, on terrorism, etc and still have some measure of full spectrum capabilities. If you look at the amplitude of the demand on the military throughout recent history, I believe this question will play out interestingly from now through November 2012.

The reason the Army and the Marine Corps were grown to their current strengths was to support the “surge” policy and a larger footprint of the land component in Southwest Asia. With our forces coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, our priorities now are not necessarily large numbers of land forces.That’s especially true when each individual in the American military can cost, before training or equipment, upward to $250,000 per year to maintain. What we have seen is a realization that the Army and Marine Corps cannot be maintained at those levels.


On cyber conflicts:

There are four strategic commons on which all nations operate. International air space, outer space, international waters, and cyberspace are the strategic commons that all activities flow through; this means commercial, travel, banking, banking, etc. Land, being sovereign, does not count. The law of the sea has 300-400 years of precedence, the International Civil Aviation Organization started in the 1940s, and with the modalities of operating in space, there are templates and operating agreements in three of the four strategic commons. What you don’t have is something similar for cybersecurity. That is what EastWest Institute President John Edwin Mroz, I, and others have been banging the drums for: we need to formally address the notion of the rules for that common.

Activities within that cyber common move at the speed of light and are almost infinite in their applicability. Cyber is not a substitute or surrogate for other forms of warfare; it is rather a parallel activity that is interconnected and integrated. The issue is that when a nation is attacked by a non-nation state player within that domain you don’t have the same legalities as when country x and y attack each other on land and sea. There is a real global need for a body of work to get our arms around it.


On the role of nuclear disarmament in modern defense:

There is a desire to find the path to zero nuclear weapons. You won’t find too many senior military officers who would disagree with having a conversation about what it would look like if the major powers would give up nuclear weapons. Is it likely that others would give up existing or developing nuclear weapons? That’s a different question.

Budget realities confront the military with the choice of either spending money on new warheads, upgrading existing systems for warhead and launcher systems, or saving money by not doing any of that. The deficit and debt realities may offer an opportunity to begin those discussions in a more robust manner.


On military pensions:

There is an expectation with the military that if something happens to me the country will take care of my family. That’s a reasonable expectation because we don’t pay soldiers a lot of money. However, there is space to do some work. Most people retire from the military before they are 65. At 65, soldiers enter the funding line for veterans; prior to that they are in the Department of Defense funding line.

There is a window here to have a discussion on payments and benefits.  Is there an expectation that retirement benefits are absolutely free? Some think that, but I do not. Is there an expectation that you will be thrown out on the street when it comes to health care? I don’t believe that for a second, not with what we ask these people to do. I think what you’re seeing in the debate about the expensive military part of the budget is an attempt to see if there is a reasonable way to go forward without breaking the national budget. That’s a good conversation to have.