The sequester’s automatic, across-the-board budget cuts have hit the Defense Department hard since they went into effect in March, taking $50 billion out of the Pentagon on top of earlier cuts made by the Obama administration. For the Air Force — the service I led for four years — the consequences of these cuts have included having to ground squadrons temporarily, cut training hours for pilots and crews, defer billions of dollars in maintenance, and even investigate the possibility of retiring entire fleets of tanker and attack aircraft.
Other services have been forced to take similarly extreme measures, including keeping Navy ships in port and cutting back on training for Army soldiers. Despite these grim realities, our political leaders are no closer to ending the sequester than they were a year ago. Holding out hope for a deal to end the sequester will only continue the automatic cuts that have harmed our armed forces’ readiness and our national security.
I recently joined with a committee of civilian and military experts, organized by the Henry L. Stimson Center and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, who agreed that our leaders should make strategic choices to provide for our national security within the limits imposed by the sequester.
Rather than cutting all Pentagon programs equally, we advocate targeting cuts to the most inefficient, least effective and least necessary programs. This would allow more money to be spent on vital programs necessary to protect our nation and ensure our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have the weapons, equipment and other resources they need.
Our recently released report — “Strategic Agility: Strong National Defense for Today’s Global and Fiscal Realities” — makes specific recommendations for how American national security could be promoted while adjusting funding to levels below the funding caps, and thereby ending automatic cuts. We would spend less on military and civilian personnel sitting at desks (the tail) and more on our men and women in uniform who put themselves in or near harm’s way to defend America (the tooth).
At the core of the committee’s recommendations was what we call strategic agility — the best military strategy available to the United States, regardless of budget resources. The strategy emphasizes the need to invest in agile forces, supported by unparalleled intelligence, reconnaissance, communications and cyber networks. Such forces can be rapidly deployed to deter aggression, reassure friends and allies, and — if necessary — strike rapidly and effectively at enemy targets.
The United States enjoys significant advantages in these areas as long as we continue to pursue them, while the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that protracted conflict is a risky and costly endeavor for American forces that should be avoided.
As a result, strategic agility focuses spending on air, sea, space and special operations, as well as cyber capabilities that can penetrate and defeat sophisticated enemy defenses. Shaping the Air Force for this strategy requires continuing investment in the KC-46 tanker, the F-35 multi-role fighter and the Long Range Strike Bomber. The ground services would be similarly shaped into smaller, agile active components accompanied by robust reserve and National Guard forces that could be activated when needed.
Collectively, the services and the Defense Department need to undertake major management reforms, cutting overhead and adopting policies modeled on best practices from the business world. As the recently appointed president of Business Executives for National Security, I am all too aware of how many industry best practices the Defense Department needs to embrace: less overhead, less infrastructure, and more agile, smaller headquarters. Each of these and more are specific recommendations in the new report.
Of course, whenever an officer from one service endorses a plan that would focus funding on his or her service at the potential expense of others, there is understandable suspicion that the strategy is little more than a grab for an increased share of the defense budget.
The emphasis on naval air and special operations capabilities in strategic agility, however, isn’t about competing with the Army and Marine Corps; rather, it’s about investing in the joint force to ensure it has the assets necessary to execute operations across the conflict spectrum.
In missions from special operations strikes to all-out war, ground forces’ abilities to land by sea or air, to move about the battlefield without threat from aerial attack, to receive consistent flows of supplies, and to call in reliable air support all depend on naval and air forces that can penetrate and defeat enemy defenses.
As nations acquire increasingly sophisticated fighter aircraft, air defense systems, anti-ship missiles and other anti-access and area-denial capabilities, the need to invest in naval and air capabilities is intensifying. This global reach and capacity to strike remains an effective counterterrorism tool as well. We cannot hope to address all conditions that create terrorists, but we must be ready to strike when we learn of a consequential threat.
By holding out for an end to the sequester, rather than strategically bringing our defense strategy and budget under the sequester caps with targeted budget cuts, our leaders are by default creating an American military that is increasingly vulnerable to emerging and future threats.
Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz served as the chief of staff of the Air Force from 2008 to 2012. He now serves as president and CEO of Business Executives for National Security.