Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was brought in last year to oversee a wholesale change in culture at the Pentagon. He was charged with reining in an out-of-control budget, implementing spending cuts totaling some $600 billion over the next decade, and overseeing a drawdown that would shift the Pentagon from a large-war model to a small one.
A year and a half later, little progress has been made on any of these fronts. The future of the American presence in Afghanistan remains in doubt. President Obama thought he was done in Iraq – but the new threats from the terror group ISIS have pulled him back in.
This is raising questions about whether the shift to the small-war model, announced by the president last year was premature. The shift in DOD strategy was based on the belief that the United States would not be fighting traditional wars against traditional adversaries. In theory, the techniques and equipment used to fight World War II or a hypothetical war against the Soviet Union, involving large numbers of troops, tanks and artillery, would not be needed to fight a modern adversary.
Instead, the U.S. would increasingly rely on drones and Special Forces to fight small, regional terrorist groups. It would partner with other countries to train troops to fight in instances where, in the past, the United States would send troops. Wars like Iraq and Afghanistan would be relics of the past.
Spending plans reflected this shift. One of the few areas of the 2014 defense budget that actually increased was the amount allocated to Special Forces -- the Pentagon plans to add 4,000 Special Forces soldiers, bringing the total to nearly 70,000, with a budget of $7.7 billion, up 10 percent from last year.
Meanwhile, large-war tools are disappearing. Weapons like the Abrams tanks and the A-10 Warthog plane, both used on a traditional battlefield, are being thrown on the scrap heap. Force size is expected to shrink to pre-World War II levels.
The Army, which peaked at 570,000 troops after 9/11, will have between 440,000 and 450,000 troops in the coming years.
Army Chief Gen. Ray Odierno has been the loudest critic of this strategy shift. This past week, he told reporters that ground troops would likely be needed to fight ISIS in Iraq. On Friday, in response to letters from 40 members of Congress asking why home districts are losing troops, Odierno blamed sequestration.
“I wrote back and I said, ‘The reason I’m taking soldiers out of the installation in your state is because of sequestration. Not that I want to do it.’ And that’s the dilemma we have,” Odierno said. “That was before we had [ISIS] and before the Ukrainian incursion. The risk has actually increased. The potential to have ground forces operating on multiple continents simultaneously causes me grave concern about the size of the military, and I think we have to review it.”
He continued, “In my opinion, we have to have a security debate in this country and decide what we want to do. Not a budget debate. A security debate. And say, ‘What do we want the capability to do?’”
“I’m not seeing, in 2016, peace breaking out all over the world,” he added.
Odierno is usually the highest-ranking member of the military to question the White House’s military strategy. Last week, however, Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chief of Staff, joined him.
“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [ISIS] targets, I’ll recommend that to the president,” Dempsey said at a hearing that was widely covered.
Defense hawks in Congress who are calling for a review of defense spending are also joining DOD brass. “Even before these things erupted, it was not adequate,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), said of DOD funding at a Senate Armed Services Hearing last week. “As we all know, risk increases when adequacy is not met.”
Even Democrats are growing more critical of sequestration. Speaking at a recent Council on Foreign Relations event, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said, “The whole sequestration decision, looking back at it, was wrong.”
Reflection of Reality
Obama’s strategy to fight ISIS and his efforts to build a stronger NATO to check Russia are reflections of a simple reality: Small-war models don’t solve all modern crises. Steven Bucci, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says Obama is taking a piecemeal approach that does not adequately confront the threats despite the growing consensus that more needs to be done.
“The president was very reluctant to take action at all. He wants to be anywhere in the world but Iraq,” Bucci said.
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