Steering the U.S. military through the difficult transition between war and what comes after has historically proven a daunting challenge for Pentagon leaders. After every “war to end all wars,” the American people have demanded a “peace dividend” that often cuts too deep for too long, and the readiness and modernization of the force have suffered. Following the post-Vietnam drawdown of the 1970s, the United States was thus infamously left with ships that couldn’t deploy, aircraft that were frequently grounded, and a “hollow Army.” During the post-Cold War drawdown of the 1990s the nation took a “strategic pause” that never materialized, and instituted a “procurement holiday” that dragged on nearly a decade. The result was a rapidly aging arsenal that in many cases included weapons much older than their operators (including a long-range bomber fleet that relied on 1960s-era B-52 bombers for a third of its punch).
And compared to other post-war drawdowns, the current withdrawal from the 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will likely prove the most challenging ever. Largely due to the Great Recession, for instance, the United States today is laden with far more debt than during previous modern retrenchments, greatly increasing the temptation to push the Pentagon down too steep a budgetary decline. After a decade of combat, the relatively small all-volunteer force is also showing severe stress fractures, most notably in the form of ballooning personnel and health care costs and an arsenal of aging equipment badly in need of repair and replacement.
Another factor that makes this period especially challenging is an extremely volatile strategic landscape. China has used America’s decade of conflict to accelerate its economic and military ascendancy, and has begun intimidating its neighbors in the South China Sea. Nuclear-armed North Korea has continued its provocative behavior under a new and unpredictable young leader. Islamic extremist groups continue to torment Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, even as Al Qaeda affiliates take root in the lightly governed spaces of North Africa. In the Middle East, Iran has continued its suspected nuclear weapons program; the civil war in Syria has begun to not only destabilize its neighbors, but also to draw in outside powers such as the United States and Russia; and Arab Spring revolutions have left extremely shaky regimes in their wake in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia. Meanwhile, narco-cartels are still challenging state power in Latin America and Mexico, and many experts believe a cyber-attack could represent the next Pearl Harbor.
Against that challenging strategic backdrop, sequestration has already forced the Pentagon into a number of risky decisions. Despite its aging arsenal, the Defense Department has already put most new acquisition programs on hold, and considered cutting back on orders of everything from the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship and the Army’s new scout helicopter, to the tri-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Such unplanned cuts will predictably cause the per-unit price of new weapons to skyrocket. Contract obligations will force the Pentagon to pay penalties for work commissioned but not completed. Defense contractors who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars conducting research-and-development and bidding on contracts will be weakened when those programs are delayed, cut or cancelled. Smaller defense firms without the resources or access to capital of the big prime contractors are already beginning to fail, some of them representing critical technological links in the defense industry supply chain.
It’s no way to run a business, especially when the business is the future security of the United States of America.