Col Bryan Bearden, USAF, is an instructor of National Security, Joint Warfare and Leadership and Ethics at the Marine Corps War College.
The great debt-ceiling fight of 2011 produced partisan politics at its finest. It also produced a congressional Super Committee tasked to identify $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by late 2011. With this daunting task at hand, where does one think the Super Committee will go pursue budget cuts? One answer is the U.S. government department that has a $680 billion budget. Thus, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has his top captains scouring the department for cuts – anywhere.
Rather than addressing the Department of Defense (DOD) economic condition with relatively small budget cuts as it has done over the past several years, the DOD and the nation would better be served by going after first order assumptions. Specifically, asking the hard question: Are the military Services really a joint force and, if so, can the DOD nix expensive duplication of the tools of warfare? Can Secretary Panetta go beyond merely cutting programs that are deemed outdated or ineffective, and look deeper into the fundamental questions about Service core competencies, missions and responsibilities?
For years, the DOD has operated in the same manner, with Service parochial budget fights being the norm in the programming process. Every force sustainment dollar has been disputed, and most modernization programs developed in a Service-centric vacuum with only peripheral crosstalk between the Services regarding missions. The result: monumental fights for funds and minimal momentum for change. While this practice has produced an armed force that is beyond compare, it has also forged a dogmatic budgetary process where service rice bowels take precedent over the nation’s budget.
So where does that leave Mr. Panetta as he considers how to continue to sustain our superior fighting force into the future while not putting the nation’s bottom line at risk? Does the DOD continue to address Service budgets program by program, dollar by dollar? Do they continue in the endless cycle of funding the Department then cutting around the edges? Or do they take a different approach – one that readdresses the core functions of each Service and eliminates funding for duplicative missions.
Much has been made of the nation’s ability to fight “jointly” since the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act required the Services to play nicely together – one team, one fight. Either the DOD and Services are committed to this joint fight or they are not. Currently, words do not match deeds. Each of the Services possessing its own air forces suggests a lack of trust amongst them to provide core functions when the bullets or bombs are flying.
So one question Secretary Panetta should ask is why does DOD have four air forces? That is, why does each Service have an air component and why do so many of the missions overlap? Aircraft are programmed for, and fielded by, each Service that perform similar missions, the obvious example being fighter aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter currently under development. A fundamental relook at Services’ air missions, with, for example the Air Force providing that function to all services, could save the Navy, Army and Marine Corps the requirement for many air assets allowing them to better focus resources on their own core missions.
The same logic could be used for the enormous proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles and other intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets. This has not only produced a crowded airspace over the battlefield, but also led to the same platforms being operated by different services.
Another example of overlap can be found in the counterinsurgency mission where DOD has leaned toward the Army and Marine Corps as the likely choices to lead irregular and hybrid campaigns in the future. This makes sense given the ground intensive nature of these missions. If this role is cast to these two Services, Air Force and Navy resources currently spent on counterinsurgency should be reallocated to the Army and Marine Corps.
By taking a fundamental look at these high-demand missions, it would make more sense to pin these missions on one Service to organize, train and equip a force to support the whole joint warfighting team, reaping economies of scale and efficiencies that such a consolidation would provide.
This different way of approaching funding challenges would be the next step in the evolution of a Joint Force, where all Services operate in full complement of each other without expensive duplication of mission or effort. Over the last 30 years, Services have evolved into a Joint force able to operate seamlessly in any battlespace. However, the “Jointness” quickly fades when it comes to funding Service specific programs.
By defining Service responsibilities that do not overlap, the DOD could realize a Joint force that is not only able to operate jointly, but at its core, also be able to operate within a budget that maximizes every dime of the tax payer’s dollar.
The DOD is working hard to find savings where it can, but the Super Committee could soon come calling looking for more. To truly propel the services into the 21st century and not break the U.S. budget, Mr. Panetta must go further. To effect true change, one must not simply shift the clay within the mold, but break the mold and start anew.