I cannot manage any real measure of optimism over the administration's new defense strategy, that of shrinking the nation's armed forces while promising to maintain our military superiority around the globe.
To be sure, the president's declaration that "Our military will be leaner but the world must know — the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats" delivered in the presence of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the service chiefs was designed to show solidarity and strength, but we have been down this road before.
We pared our military after World War I (the "war to end all wars"), and again following World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War. In each instance, not only were we destined to regret the cutbacks but also paid a high price in time, funding and manpower to regain the balance of power in combat forces.
No reasonably knowledgeable person nor organization can attest that there is not a measure of waste, redundancy or extravagance that cannot be winnowed or reduced to streamline the military without compromising mission accomplishment. Nevertheless, the $487 billion military budget reduction agreed to by Congress and the president through 2021 accomplished that and more.
But, when the earlier cancellation of $350 billion in weapons programs is added to the addition of another automatic $450 billion in reductions if the failure of the "super committee" to act goes into effect, we are endangered. A $1.2 trillion gamble on national defense is a bet that might be championed by the likes of Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich but constitutes an unreasonable risk to others than impractical visionaries.
Some of us can remember the woeful state of training in existence after Korea and Vietnam. The lack of funding for fuel restricted pilots to "proficiency flying" of four hours per month and kept our ships from sailing. Ammunition for small arms and artillery training was equally in short supply and cannibalization of parts from other equipment was all that kept tanks and trucks on the road.
Today, after more than a decade of combat, our weapons of war are worn and in need of replacement. Our Navy, Marine and Air Force pilots are flying machines that are often older than the pilot. Aircraft, surface ships, submarines and infantry arms, replenished and refurbished in the 1980s, are rapidly reaching the end of serviceability.
Current planning calls for a reduction in ground combat forces of 90,000 from the Army and 27,000 Marines, relying instead on air and sea power, high tech weaponry and special operations forces as the new strategy. This may be an acceptable risk to some; however, it is a formula that has proven less than satisfactory in our war history.
Armchair strategists and tacticians have contended for decades that our wars would be won from the air, by technology — that close up and personal combat was a thing of the past. Yet, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan have been "grunt" or "Willie and Joe" infantryman's wars — wars won by occupying enemy territory — "boots on the ground" to cliche aficionados. The infantry remains the "Queen of Battle" — everything else is in support.
For those who point to Libya as the model for this new winning strategy involving air and high tech warfare, bolstered by multinational involvement, I offer a disclaimer. The action against Libya violated at least four principles of war at the outset and, our early withdrawal, e.g., handing it off to NATO to "lead from the rear," extended the conflict by at least six months.
Libya, as an armed combatant, would not have posed a threat to the Vatican's Swiss Guards. However, NATO, having to operate without the U.S. command, control and communications apparatus, was not able to close out a conflict that dragged on from Feb. 15 until Oct. 23.
Finally, with our economy in peril and the state of our indebtedness, the armed forces must accept a fair share of cost reductions. However, with the defense outlay accounting for just 4.5 percent of GDP, a trillion dollar cut is callous overkill.
Remember how former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was ridiculed for his "you go to war with the army you have" statement? It was as true then as it is now. Is it not more prudent to have a strong defense and not need it than to need and not have it?
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.