Matching Resources with Interests: A Strategy to Guide the Defense Budget

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Matching Resources with Interests: A Strategy to Guide the Defense Budget

By Major General Paul Eaton, USA (Ret.) and Kelsey Hartigan

To read the full report as a PDF, click here.

THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE is charged with protecting the American people and defending our nation and our allies. Our Armed Forces are operating in a strategic environment that continues to evolve as geopolitical trends shift and the world becomes increasingly interconnected. Yet chief among the myriad of challenges we face in the 21st century is our economic security.

The horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 set in motion a massive spending spree that has more than doubled the defense budget.[1] As Admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained, having this ready spigot of money “hasn’t forced us to make the hard choices. It hasn’t forced us to prioritize. It hasn’t forced us to do the analysis. And it hasn’t forced us to limit ourselves and get to a point or deciding, in a very turbulent world, what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do.”[2]

As Congress, in conjunction with the Department of Defense, prepares to make the hard choices that are essential to our country’s fiscal health and security, we must also reevaluate our national security priorities, the way America conducts its business in the world and the role the military plays in accomplishing those objectives. Now is the time to realign our defense strategy, rebalance the force and invest in systems that match our missions. As lawmakers contemplate future reductions, a broader shift in strategy will produce more meaningful savings, at a lower risk to our men and women in uniform.

The Strategic Environment

The challenges of the 21st century are immense. The world is more interconnected than ever before, and while the threat of terrorism remains, it is but one of the challenges facing the United States and the international system:

A “multi-nodal” world. Shifts in political, economic and military power have facilitated a rise of new regional actors.[3] States such as China and India in particular have experienced rapid growth and continue to take on stronger regional roles.[4] Russia has returned to the international stage and historic movements in the Middle East and North Africa have dramatically altered the region. These changes can present opportunities as well as challenges.

Non-state actors. The U.S. and international system has seen a growth in terrorists, criminal networks, pirates and other non-state actors who are increasingly well-equipped and employing advanced technologies.

Proliferation of nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological weapons. The possibility that a terrorist or terrorist organization could acquire a nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological weapon remains one of the gravest, albeit unlikely, national security threats we face. Efforts aimed at locking down vulnerable nuclear material have progressed, but the threat persists. At the same time, states such as Iran and North Korea continue to defy international norms and threaten regional stability.[5]

An ongoing economic crisis. The international economic downturn has forced a number of U.S. allies and partners to take austerity measures that will increasingly affect the security contributions such states are willing and able to make. And at home, the long-term impacts of debt, joblessness and crumbling infrastructure continue to be of grave concern.[6]

Other serious challenges. As populations continue to grow and more people flock to urban areas, demand for resources has increased, particularly in the developing world. Water scarcity and governance issues are likely to accompany such growth in the future. Climate change and global pandemics will also exacerbate challenges to international security and stability.[7]

Given the scope of challenges facing the United States and global system, America must continue to work with its allies and partners to forge strong coalitions and institutions that are capable of responding to and mitigating such threats. American leadership, both at home and abroad, will continue to be instrumental in sustaining and shaping the global order. Leveraging such leadership will require that the U.S. use all elements of our national power-our political, economic and military might-and that we pursue our national interests on a smart, calculated basis.

Enduring National Interests

The National Security Strategy highlights our enduring national interests[8]:

  • The security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners;
  • A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity;
  • Respect for universal values at home and around the world; and
  • An international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.

The strategy for advancing these interests must employ a blend of diplomacy, development and defense. The U.S. has relied too heavily on our troops and engaged in operations that are not directly related to vital national interests-a trend which has proven costly, in terms of both blood and treasure. As budgets shrink and the Pentagon turns to the hard choices it must make, the U.S. must first realign its wider defense strategy and the force structure that supports it.

A Strategy That Matches Our Interests with Our Means

Over the past decade, we have seen an expansion of military mission sets and capabilities that goes far beyond what political and military leaders now expect our armed forces to do in the years ahead. Ground forces, in particular, have grown in number and scope as the U.S. pursued a counterinsurgency doctrine that demanded troop-intensive operations simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Few would challenge-and the National Security Strategy of the United States supports-the assertion of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that, “The United States is unlikely to repeat a mission on the scale of those in Afghanistan or Iraq anytime soon-that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire.”[9] Maintaining the size of ground forces demanded by those operations appears unnecessary.  Moreover, America’s success in combating terrorism through smaller, more targeted operations-including the one that culminated in the death of Osama bin Laden-shows that there are other more effective tools at our disposal.

Shifting to a Counterterrorist Mission

The U.S. has made significant progress toward disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda and its affiliates. The deployment of a large number of ground troops in Afghanistan is out of sync with both an effective counterterrorist mission and with the resource demands of other national security and economic security challenges, at home and globally. A responsible drawdown and a move from a broad counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan to a counterterrorist mission, integrated with our efforts in Yemen, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, would help realign American interests with our commitment in Afghanistan and offer a more pragmatic and affordable path forward.[10]

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. coordinator for the future of Afghanistan under George W. Bush, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year that, “At the macro or global level, Afghanistan is simply absorbing more economic, military, human, diplomatic, and political resources of every sort than it warrants. The $110-$120 billion annual price tag-one out of every six to seven dollars this country spends on defense-is unjustifiable given the budget crisis we face…” Haass estimates that a considerably smaller force, with the exact number being determined by the threat, goals and outside resources, would save upwards of $75 billion a year.[11] Such a shift would also facilitate reductions in the end strengths of the Army and the Marine Corps.

Rebalance U.S. Ground Forces

In 2001, before the twin towers fell and before America went into Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had decisive control over the air and sea lines of communication and maintained a force that was capable of defending our national interests and deterring aggression.

In the last 10 years, the Army and the Marine Corps have added 118,500 soldiers and Marines as the U.S. pursued occupation and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.[12]

Increases in U.S. ground forces, 2001-2011













The Army currently plans to complete a 49,000 soldier drawdown by September 2016, with 22,000 expected to be out by the end of 2012. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, has said that the Army will probably go below the 520,000-soldier end strength now planned, which Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Army’s personnel chief, said is manageable. “We can do this, and we will manage it just as we have done in the past,” Bostick has said.[15]

Predicated upon a departure from COIN operations, an end strength of approximately 480,000 and 173,000 for the Army and Marine Corps, respectively, would allow for sufficient ground forces in the event that U.S. interests are challenged and the services are called on to act. Additional reductions may be possible pending a review of the requirements for forward-deployed troops in Europe and Asia. While the U.S. presence overseas has facilitated engagement with and stability for regional allies, today’s security environment may enable a realignment of the 80,000 forward-deployed troops in Europe and 60,000 troops in Asia.[16]

Any reduction in ground forces must be accompanied by a commitment to honor Army and Marine Corps deployment guidelines, so that end strength and missions are balanced.

Investing in Other Tools

A reduction in Army and Marine Corps General Purpose forces would heighten the already increasing focus on U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs). Special Forces and drones can be powerful tools, but neither is a panacea, and each has its limits.

It will take time to grow SOF, and several issues will need to be addressed throughout this transition. Lawmakers must consider deployment schedules, the size of recruitment pools and time needed to train and deploy new recruits. That said, the professionalism of our General Purpose forces has proven so exemplary that a shift to SOF would be much faster and more effective than any past efforts. The Congressional Research Service notes that, “Since September 11, 2001, [U.S. Special Operations Command] manpower has nearly doubled, the budget nearly tripled, and overseas deployments have quadrupled.”[17] Admiral Eric Olson, former U.S. Special Operations commander, testified earlier this year that approximately 85 percent of deployed SOF are directly engaged in Operations NEW DAWN and ENDURING FREEDOM, where they are executing the counterterrorist strike mission and the Village Stability Operations mission.[18] Absent a counterinsurgency focus, SOF could continue their successful prosecution of the counterterrorist mission while retaining the ability to conduct a variety of operations through land, sea or air.

As Admiral William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command has noted, “U.S. SOCOM comprises only 1.6 percent of the Department of Defense-proposed FY12 budget, and put simply, provides a tremendous return on the nation’s investment.”[19]

Counterterrorist operations are already highlighting both the effectiveness and the issues raised by RPVs. Drones already play a prominent role in current operations and, as they advance beyond an intelligence-gathering role to an operational role, are changing moral, legal, personnel and financial calculations in ways that have only begun to be explored. As the New York Times recently reported, drones require manpower and money but on a much smaller scale than ground forces.

“The apparent simplicity of a drone aloft, with its pilot operating from the United States, can be misleading. Behind each aircraft is a team of 150 or more personnel, repairing and maintaining the plane and the heap of ground technology that keeps it in the air, poring over the hours of videos and radio signals it collects, and gathering the voluminous intelligence necessary to prompt a single strike. Air Force officials calculate that it costs $5 billion to operate the service’s global airborne surveillance network, and that sum is growing. The Pentagon has asked for another $5 billion next year alone for remotely piloted drone systems. Yet even those costs are tiny compared with the price of the big wars. A Brown University study, published in June, estimates that the United States will have spent $3.7 trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq by the time the wars are over.”

While RPVs will continue to be an important component of the counterterrorist mission, drones will not be the system of choice for every future operation. The New York Times concludes:

“As useful as the drones have proved for counterterrorism, their value in other kinds of conflicts may be more limited. Against some of the most significant potential threats-a China in ascendancy, for example, or a North Korea or Iran with nuclear weapons-drones are likely to be of marginal value. Should military force be required as a deterrent or for an attack, traditional forces, including warships and combat aircraft, would carry the heaviest load… Military officials say they are aware that drones are no panacea.”[20]

Retaining Naval and Air Superiority

Freedom of action in the global commons-the sea, air, space and cyber domains-has long been a hallmark of U.S. defense strategy and is a fundamental element of our global economic system. The Navy and Air Force have traditionally been responsible for ensuring U.S. access to the commons. And while the Army and Marine Corps have grown dramatically since 2001, the end strengths of the Navy and Air Force have decreased and the systems have gotten older. The naval and air power of the United States remains second to none, but these services are systems-oriented, and some platforms need to be recapitalized. This should not, however, justify a limitless expansion of capability. While there are some areas that deserve continued investment, the U.S. has no close peer competitor and should not center our defense strategy on any foreign military that is, and will remain, quantitatively and qualitatively inferior well into the future. Dr. Gordon Adams, distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and former associate director for national security and international affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, notes:

“[A]s Secretary Gates pointed out in May 2008, military services with lesser roles in current wars chronically plan around ‘Next-War-Itis,’ a fixation on potential future conflicts that would feature them more prominently and thus inflate their budgets well beyond demand. China is the scenario on which this planning focuses, especially for the Air Force, Navy, and advocates of programs that are aimed at ensuring US ‘access’ to the Pacific theater.

There is no doubt that China is a rising power and is making substantial investments in its defense capabilities, but some perspective is needed here. China’s military investment is, according to the most informed sources, one-seventh of ours. Chinese capabilities at sea and in the air are minimal compared to those of the US and will take decades to catch up, a goal reachable only if the US stops investing in defense. Moreover, there is little indication that China seeks a military confrontation with the US and no grounds at all for viewing the relationship as one driven by fundamental ideological hostility… There is ample room here for a long-term strategy that maintains our military power and presence in the Pacific region, avoids an arms race, and engages China on the diplomatic, economic, and financial levels. Indeed, the Chinese may be looking for the US to get its fiscal house in order, which is in the interests of both powers.”[21]

Eliminating Redundant and Unnecessary Capabilities

Realigning our defense strategy and rebalancing the force will also allow for the elimination of redundant or unnecessary weapon systems. The U.S. should be investing in systems that support missions that are in line with future needs. Some programs just do not make sense for today’s strategic environment, while others provide too low a return given the high cost and questionable utility. In order to reduce political pressures and ensure Congress implements these cuts, a weapons system BRAC process should be instituted. As the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform recommends, “Congress should also consider a ‘BRAC commission’ for terminating major weapons systems, appointed and headed by the Secretary of Defense, for trimming redundant or ineffective weapons from the Defense Department’s inventory.”[22] Each service is buying or planning to buy systems that are out of step with our overall strategy. The following are representative, though not exhaustive, examples:

Army. As former Defense Secretary Gates cautioned, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”[23] Yet the Army continues to request funds for tactical vehicles that are geared toward plans to do just that. As the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission report recommended, the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, Ground Combat Vehicle and the Joint Tactical Radio should all be cancelled:  “Based on the Army’s report to Congress, ‘Army Truck Program: Tactical Wheeled Vehicle Acquisition Strategy,’ the Army has already reached its requirements for FY2017 for its light, medium, and heavy tactical vehicles, earlier than anticipated because battle losses, maintenance washouts and vehicles left in theater were lower than anticipated. In light of this situation, it is not clear why the Army needs to buy the new Light Tactical Vehicles at this time.” The Fiscal Commission estimates that this would save $2.3 billion in 2015.[24]

Air Force. The Air Force plans to build a new penetrating, nuclear-capable bomber, which former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright said will have costs out of proportion to its utility. The Air Force originally announced it planned to purchase approximately 100 aircraft at a price of roughly $550 million each. Yet a 2009 study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimated that a next generation bomber program would cost $30 to $40 billion for just 50 to 60 aircraft. As DefenseTech reported, “The general’s main worry is that we will build an ‘exquisite’ aircraft, loaded with the latest stealth, able to fly huge distances and crammed with expensive sensors and end up being able to buy only a few of them. He noted the progression of bomber production numbers: 100s of the venerable B-52; 65 B-1s; and 20 B-2s. ‘Building five or 10 of something isn’t going to do something for us.’ he said.”[25]

Navy. The Littoral Combat Ship is a lesson in poor planning and strategic drift. In FY12 alone, the Pentagon plans to spend more than $2.1 billion on the LCS.[26] Yet as Wired magazine’s David Axe has reported, no one seems to know why. “The confusion over the LCS’ roles has gone on so long it has created a bizarre feedback loop, with the Navy, its shipbuilders, the Pentagon and America’s regional commanders each developing plans and technologies for the LCS based on conflicting assumptions. The result is a warship theoretically capable of almost anything, and increasingly optimized for nothing. ‘The Navy risks investing in a fleet of ships that does not deliver its promised capability,’ warned Ronald O’Rourke from the Congressional Research Service. But O’Rourke is being altogether too kind: The LCS is already failing to deliver, today. And the damage to the Navy, and to U.S. national security, could last for decades.”[27]

For the systems we do need, the acquisition process must be reformed. Economist Keith Brown, formerly with the Center for Naval Analysis, recently proposed that war fighters use budget-based war games to discipline acquisition costs and move away from a procurement system based purely on requirements. Brown explains, “In this game, war fighters would choose capabilities and platforms and build force structures for the purpose of fighting a simulated battle, but with a twist: The players would receive a budget and face costs for capabilities and platforms. They use their scarce budget to build their force structures, and those force structures subsequently fight mock battles in simulated environments. This budget-based war game puts war fighters at the center of the acquisition process and shows how actual operators would trade off between quantity and quality.”

The acquisition process is not currently designed to recognize areas where such tradeoffs need to be made. Brown writes, “Under the current system, war fighters and defense officials determine what they want their ships, jets and weapons systems to do, which yields requirements. Once the requirements are identified, contractors then determine the costs. This requirements-based acquisition system often results in unrealistically expensive systems. Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s deputy chief of acquisitions, wants to discipline defense acquisition costs by disciplining requirements… War fighters have made the same point. Navy Cmdr. Henry Hendrix, writing in the April 2009 issue of Proceedings, said, ‘Instead of producing a large number of ships with blunt, effective capabilities to meet the threats of today, the Navy has aligned with the shipbuilding industry to build an entire generation of ships with exquisite technologies that are the very best in the world, but are also so expensive that the Navy can only afford a limited number of hulls.'” Brown notes that “Requirements-based acquisition yields a few gold-plated weapons, rather than a lot of good-enough weapons systems.”[28]


This report is not intended to be a comprehensive review of U.S. defense strategy or its expenditures. It does, however, offer a larger vantage point from which to consider the wider debate over defense spending. “Salami slicing”-making equal cuts across the board-can produce savings. But reductions that are guided by a broader shift in strategy will produce more meaningful savings, at a lower risk to our men in women in uniform. A top-down approach that surveys the strategic environment, focuses on advancing our vital national interests and rebalances how and where we deploy our forces will lead to a stronger, more focused military-and a leaner defense budget.

Major General Paul Eaton, USA (Ret.) is the senior advisor at the National Security Network, where Kelsey Hartigan is a policy analyst.

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