Congress’s Defense Program


Editor’s Note: We recently announced a contest on defense spending and strategy. We published the third place entry yesterday.  Today, we have the second place winner – an anonymous entry. Very mysterious! Come back tomorrow to read the first place winner. 


The common lament of defense policy thinkers is that defense budgets are not linked to strategy, and that lament has rarely been heard more than in this era of sequestration. Congress—that parochial bête-noire of American strategists—is slashing the defense budget by the billions while preventing common sense reductions in infrastructure or restructuring of military compensation.

But Congress, for all of its dysfunction and parochialism, actually sends some fairly clear messages about what it wants in a military, through its hearings, annual defense authorization bills, and the voluminous correspondence from members to the Defense Department.

The key elements of what might be called the Congressional approach to defense are threefold: shift the bulk of force structure toward the reserve component, particularly the National Guard; reduce forces stationed permanently overseas; and limit investment in costly and unproven new systems in favor of continued production of updated current-generation systems that get the job done and sustain the industrial base.

From Congress’s refusal to cut defense infrastructure, one can infer that it is not overly supportive of cutting the overall size of the force very much. The way around this seeming roadblock that would save the Defense Department money while maintaining substantial force structure, and even make members of Congress happy, is to shift a more substantial portion of the Army and Air Force, far more than currently discussed, into the reserve component, particularly the National Guard. The National Guard, rooted in the home states and districts of Congressional members, is more connected to and politically perilous for Congress to cut, offers near-equal capability when mobilized and is estimated to cost up to two-thirds less than active component units when personnel costs are factored into the equation.

The downside of shifting more of the force into the reserve component is that it would be somewhat less responsive in a crisis. However, the contingency scenarios that demand rapid deployment of massive force structure are limited, and certain Army units, particularly armored brigade combat teams, take longer to fully deploy anyway. With the exception of its special operations forces, specifically the Rangers and Green Berets, and a few rapidly deployable units, the Army should not seek to replicate the Marine Corps expeditionary model, but should embrace the role of America’s heavy ground combat service to be called upon only for major war contingencies. Putting up to half the Army’s total force structure into the reserves could potentially save $100 billion over the next ten years, in addition to the savings made by the force structure reductions already in progress.

Likewise, the Air Force could shift some additional fighter and support wings into the Air Reserve or Air Guard. Again, the downside of such a move would be a decrease in responsiveness, but maintaining a somewhat heightened pace of training could help mitigate that. Furthermore, the Navy and Marine Corps provide significant air capabilities in their own right. The Air Force’s unique combat contribution comes from long-range bombers, which would remain in the active component. The shift of additional Air Force units into the reserve component could save approximately $50 billion over the next ten years.

Putting more of the Army and Air Force into the reserve component would also further another Congressional objective: maintaining defense infrastructure at home by reducing force structure based overseas. The argument is often made that the maintenance of U.S. forces in Europe allows our allies on the continent to neglect their own defenses. Meanwhile, in Asia, fixed bases in Japan and South Korea may be endangered by the missile arsenals of potential adversaries. The reduction in forces permanently based abroad would be counterbalanced by increased rotational deployments, including by Guard and Reserve units, a concept that already figures into the Defense Department’s 2012 strategic guidance. Reducing forces based overseas could save somewhere between $70-100 billion or perhaps more, depending on how many forces and how much infrastructure is cut.

While Congress generally supports modernization and seeks to provide American service members with the best equipment possible, it is justly critical of defense programs that experience significant cost overruns while underperforming. Even more unforgivable are programs that do not have a clear raison d’être or concept of operations associated with them. For example, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship has severely underperformed expectations and is not expected to be survivable against moderately capable hostile forces. The Army is pursuing a new Ground Combat Vehicle despite the fact that there is not an obvious threat surpassing its existing Bradley fighting vehicles. The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle is expected to replace Army and Marine humvees at several times the cost. Systems like the Army’s next-generation network and radio and the MEADS air defense system can also be cancelled with little additional risk. Each of these programs should be cancelled for a savings of somewhere in the range of $50 billion over ten years.

In place of these programs, the Department should preserve current generation systems by extending production lines for reliable systems like destroyers, submarines, and current generation ground vehicles. Incremental upgrades and new payloads can be developed to keep these systems relevant further into the future at a much lower cost. This approach does increase the risk of technological surprise, but it is a politically attractive solution because it keeps the industrial base humming along while incremental improvements avoid acquisition calamities.

These may not reflect many of the concepts that the Department and think tanks would devise for themselves, but it does add up to something approximating a coherent defense program that would uphold our country’s core national security interests, perhaps unwittingly, and save at least $300 billion over ten years. It’s not the approach this author would prefer. But by adopting this new, more politically sustainable approach, the Department may be able to regain some of the fiscal certainty that allows it to plan effectively for the future.


The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, works on defense issues in Washington, DC.