The ingredients for a raging storm are gathering around the Pentagon. Any one, under the wrong circumstances and wrongly handled, will have destructive effect and could even reach tsunami proportions.
Perhaps not since 1947-1949, when the Defense Department was created, has the Pentagon faced such challenges. Those past days brought the “revolt of the admirals,” the suicide of the first defense secretary, the very troubled James Forrestal who leaped to his death from Bethesda Naval Hospital tower, and a military vastly unprepared to fight the Korean War when it started in June 1950.
Fortunately, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is no Jim Forrestal, and we have the best fighting forces in history. However, consider the agenda ahead for defense:
In its first four years, the administration pushed hard to transform the Pentagon. Success was measured in converting the services to its way of thinking; really tough budget choices were deferred. Only two multibillion-dollar programs, Comanche helicopters and the Crusader artillery system, were canceled.
Now, even at $500 billion a year, the budget cannot nearly sustain the current program’s planned F/A-22 and Joint Strike Fighter numbers, SSN-21 nuclear subs, V-22s and advanced expeditionary warfare vehicles and Future Combat Systems. Major if not draconian cuts will be required.
Second, while Mr. Rumsfeld was “home alone” during his first months as secretary, this time he will have a brand-new team. With Paul Wolfowitz’s departure, there will be a new deputy and soon a new undersecretary for policy. Each of the three service secretaries will be new to their jobs as will the next chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs (with the last two no doubt having close relationships with Mr. Rumsfeld). And even the matter of Mr. Rumsfeld’s length of service has been raised, though he will probably stay to finish the Quadrennial Defense Review, discussed below.
Third, the U.S. military may not be overstretched in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But it is close, and the strain on the reserve and National Guard component is more than serious. Neither was designed for long-term duty as if active duty forces — short of a war against the Soviet Union, an enemy long gone. So, at some stage, the Total or All-Volunteer Force will have to be re-engineered to deal not only with the post-Cold War world but more importantly with consequences of September 11, 2001, and the global war on terror.
Fourth, the political atmosphere in Washington is highly and poisonously partisan. If Senate Republicans opt for the “nuclear option” to end extended debate, Congress could well shut down. Even if it does not, Congress represents constituents whose priorities and interests for items such as expensive weapons systems and maintaining redundant military bases conflict with the Pentagon. With debts and deficits now exploding, past budget debates will be made to seem tame.
Fifth is the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review. Mr. Rumsfeld has teed up a potentially tectonic agenda. The services are challenged to design forces based on extraordinarily difficult and complex objectives. The services must not only be able to fight and win conventional wars and insurgencies. They must also be able to prevent or handle “disruptive events” such as those of September 11 and “catastrophic” ones such as a nuclear or biological terrorist attack. And, in addition to stabilizing failed or failing states, the U.S. military must determine how to influence the “strategic” choices” of actual or potential adversaries from Russia to China.
Wow. Each of these challenges is Sisyphean. The sum is breathtaking. And that excludes wild-card events such as a major terrorist attack here or in Britain perhaps just prior to the May 5 parliamentary elections, a crisis over Taiwan or North Korean or Iranian nuclear intentions, an unraveling of the new government in Iraq and many other unpleasant possibilities.
So what can or should be done to prevent a perfect storm? The Pentagon understandably will argue it needs to complete the QDR first to provide the basis for future choices. Normally, that would make sense. But in today’s supercharged world, all participants in these decisions must be on board for takeoff if they are expected to be in on the landing. Beaming Congress or key allies up after the fact will not work this time around.
Hence, the administration would be well advised to begin consultations now with Congress and key allies to get not only their inputs but also their participation before and during as well as after the QDR process. This is not 1949. But, if not handled carefully, it could be much worse.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for The Washington Times and United Press International. Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Times. Both are senior advisers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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