Somewhere, Donald Rumsfeld is smiling. At long last, a United States president has embraced his ideas for transforming the U.S. military.
Before stubbornly driving his reputation (and his country) into a ditch in Iraq, Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush's first secretary of defense, had built a reputation as an out-of-the-box thinker on defense priorities. He preached lighter, leaner, faster, cheaper. His ideas frightened the defense establishment — fewer armored and artillery units. Fewer heavy infantry divisions. More light fighters. More technology. More special operations troops.
Now comes a Democratic president, Barack Obama, with a strategic plan for resetting military priorities that borrows heavily from a conservative military iconoclast. The plan Obama announced Thursday reflects the hard lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, changing geopolitical realities and a drastically different budget situation.
The hard parts have yet to be announced — what bases, what programs, what weapons, what priorities will be eliminated or changed. The fighting will be ferocious, both within the Pentagon and in Congress. Democrats and Republicans alike will fight to preserve jobs and programs in their states and districts. Some Republicans have vowed, deficits notwithstanding, to oppose any large-scale cuts to the defense budget.
These battles will play out against the backdrop of the elections and the urgent need to reduce deficits by $4 trillion over the next 10 years. You can't get to $4 trillion without reducing defense spending. The question is how to recast America's military capabilities within those new budget realities.
The first part of the answer is the unofficial end of the Pentagon's "two-war strategy." That was a Cold War assumption that at all times the United States should have one force to confront the Soviet Union in the Fulda Gap and a second force to be employed elsewhere — Korea, perhaps, or the Middle East.
The new assumption is, in so many words, a "war-and-a-half." Enough troops, armor and airlift capacity for one full-scale foreign intervention, with enough left over for a "contingency operation," say a Bosnia. This would mitigate against any large-scale counterinsurgency operations like Afghanistan or Iraq and in favor of special ops missions, training operations, international coalitions (i.e., Libya) and short-term disaster intervention.
Fewer soldiers and Marines will be needed; the force buildup required by Rumsfeld's miscalculations in Iraq will be reversed. Force will be projected with sea power, particularly in the Pacific. Fewer fighter jets may be required but more unmanned drones.
However this ends, the United States still will be spending more money on defense than the next six or seven nations combined. That ought to be enough.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.