Too often in Washington, the focus of partisan fights is a dollar sign, particularly when it comes to defense. Depending on who’s talking, the military budget is too high or too low (though a consensus is forming around “too low,” one that includes the Joint Chiefs, President Obama and most members of Congress). 

Instead of focusing exclusively on the size of the defense budget, policymakers should instead examine what these dollars buy in terms of safety, security and stability. In other words: look at the complex outputs rather than simple dollar inputs.

These days, defense dollars are buying less and, in a first, getting less. 

The United States of America is officially a one-war power, a husk of its traditional status as a two-war superpower. Few realize this reality outside the Pentagon. Policymakers argue about defense vs. non-defense spending, the use of base vs. war spending, or which party is to blame for the Budget Control Act – a policy Frankenstein everyone seems to hate but no one is capable of rescinding permanently. 

As a result, the nation’s armed forces face two distinct challenges that will worsen as budgets level off and the military atrophies: first, a force-planning construct that is woefully inadequate for the global and everyday demands of wartime and peacetime; and second, a board of directors (the Pentagon, White House and Congress) that cannot clarify priorities, make difficult trade-offs, redefine service roles and missions, or take any assignment off the table – even as the military’s capability, capacity and readiness decline in tandem. 

NO MORE TWO-WAR CONSTRUCTSince the end of World War II, the United States has been the underwriter of the liberal rules-based international order, building crucial organizations, managing alliance systems to address common threats and maintaining the freedom of the commons. Because our national interests reach most corners of the globe, it was reasonable to expect to employ the tools of statecraft – most visibly the U.S. military – in a variety of places at once to keep the peace and, when necessary, win wars. These assumptions about the nature and scope of U.S. interests and responsibilities abroad lasted through administrations both Republican and Democratic.

After the Cold War, the Pentagon codified the U.S. interest in active participation in global affairs through a two-war force-sizing construct. Not only has the U.S. military been charged with fighting and winning two wars for a quarter-century, but it has been tasked with doing so in overlapping timeframes or in close succession. 

This was not the result of freeloading allies or a desire to show off but because vital national interests deemed it necessary. For years, the two classic conflicts around which forces were planned, sized, built and bought were Iraq and North Korea. The types of wars that qualified as “major theater” wars or “major regional conflicts” (MRCs) were akin to the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, a possible Iranian conflagration in the Persian Gulf or a full-scale war on the Korean peninsula. 

Despite the massive personnel drawdown and procurement holiday of the 1990s, the two-war model was never openly challenged. After all, Russia had shrunk from its former glory, China was focused inward, Iraq and Iran were contained, and global jihadist terrorism seemed a footnote of history. The national security situation was less stressing than at any time since 1940. 

Yet that two-MRC standard has breathed its last – not with a bang, but with a whimper. After a combination of events that included the Budget Control Act, an emphasis on reducing federal debt and a presidency that prioritized “nation building” at home, America quietly dropped its two-war construct for something closer to one war plus something smaller. Official Pentagon parlance now characterizes this as “defeat and deny.”

There are two problems with this landmark shift in force planning. First, the nation’s interests have not diminished, nor has policymakers’ appetite for employing those in uniform to deter aggression, shape events and, if needed, win conflicts. Second, this long-held multigenerational standard was dropped with little fanfare and even less debate. In a town where people talk too much, this should raise many red flags. 

Today’s modified war plans are geared toward one short-duration, high-intensity event with a country like Iran and a scenario like, say, closing the Strait of Hormuz. The second war remains a traditional conflict on the Korean peninsula, but shorter and with a heavier reliance on our South Korean allies. Gone is any plan that foresees conflict taking longer than one year in duration or any contingency with a whiff of stability operations, long-term counterinsurgency or counter-insurrection, or nation building of the type seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

This wag-the-dog approach, in which defense spending is starved to restrict U.S. foreign policy, has been effective in increasing caution among commanders and therefore limiting the types of scenarios in which U.S. forces will now engage. It succeeded partly because the timing was right, and Washington was ripe to accept a more restrained foreign policy in the circular argument that investment in defense would naturally decline alongside our budgets and the economy more generally. Also, it just sort of happened –
unofficially, in a byzantine and bureaucratic fashion somewhere between Obama’s pivot to Asia, a budget-cutting drill known as the Strategic Choices and Management Review inside the Pentagon, and the last official defense strategy issued in 2014. There is dispute among current and former Obama officials about what exactly took place and when, which would be frightening were the policy abandonment not more so. 


YOU CAN’T DO MORE WITH LESS For years, this new normal made it necessary for the military to think harder and smarter in the face of limited resources. The result was a
continuous “do-more-with-less” mindset in the Defense Department that forced a proud and innovative military to focus on squeezing out marginal efficiencies instead of assuring allies and deterring enemies.

After six years of budget cuts and operational shifts, hard choices have in many cases turned into stupid or bad ones. Fewer resources and the lack of bipartisan consensus in favor of a strong defense have forced commanders and planners across services to accept previously unthinkable risks as they pick and choose which portions of the national defense strategy to implement.

For decades, the Pentagon dealt with budgetary tensions between and among its services and missions through trade-offs at the margins. With a few exceptions, it has not seen major changes in roles and missions or shifts in historic ratios of service budget shares as a percentage of total spending. It is difficult enough even in periods of budget growth to balance the competing demands of presence vs. posture, present vs. future, capacity vs. capability, active vs. reserve and combat readiness vs. post-service support. 

A few examples: the Army’s identity crisis following the Vietnam War mirrored the argument between conventional warfare and counterinsurgency that emerged as Iraq and Afghanistan wound down and Russia returned to the scene in 2014. Following the relatively balanced military of the 1980s, the postwar peace dividend chose the present over the future and capability over capacity. As the Bush administration entered office in 2001, it sought to double down on capability over capacity, but large ground wars stymied many of its efforts. The brutal demands of these conflicts also privileged post-service support over high-end combat readiness and personnel compensation over modern equipment. Yet most of these choices involved accepting some or moderate risk. 

But amid this balancing effort, Congress and the administration imposed a budgetary constriction just as the military had swung from the “future threats” end of the pendulum all the way to the “present threats” end. In the late 2000s, the exigencies of Iraq and Afghanistan drowned out all other requirements. Readiness for counterinsurgency trumped combined arms training. The Air Force’s new bomber, tanker, air superiority fighter and search-and-rescue helicopter were all canceled in favor of long-loiter drones and a satellite constellation prefaced on long-duration stability operations. The Marine Corps expeditionary fighting vehicle was strangled by demands that it be IED-resistant. The Navy focused wholly on power projection, zeroing out its investment in future sea-control forces.

By 2016, the pendulums of future vs. present and of presence vs. posture had swung back in the other direction, but now under a shrinking budget top line. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter truncated the Navy’s 52-hull Littoral Combat Ship buy, already inadequate for steady-state presence demands, to a mere 40 ships in favor of investing in high-end warfighting technologies suitable for combat against China or Russia. The Air Force’s F-35A and Army aviation as a whole were robbed to pay for other targeted investments in next-generation technologies, and each service’s force structure remains woefully inadequate to meet requirements for the next five to 10 years. Tensions between Army and Air Force reserve components have necessitated two large-scale outside commissions in two years. The tension between services has worsened despite improved operational jointness, as evidenced by the struggle between the Navy and Air Force over nuclear recapitalization funding. 

Unmentioned is that the risk to the force grows each passing year. It is now at crisis levels and promises unnecessarily longer wars, higher numbers of wounded or killed in action, and outright potential for mission failure. Fights over fundamental trade-offs have become zero-sum, all-or-nothing scrambles for cash in which the loser cannot complete mission requirements. 

Everywhere one looks, prioritization and balancing have devolved into existential choices. Each service requires both capability and capacity, both presence and posture; each service requires readiness for current fights and those of the future. Each service needs to find a lasting balance between its active and reserve components. 

To put it simply, under current funding levels, the United States can field a naval/air-oriented force capable of achieving its objectives in the Western Pacific and secondary requirements elsewhere. It can field an Army and Marine Corps capable of deterring Russia in Europe and meeting myriad growing requirements in the Middle East. But it cannot do both, and this fact saddles both the nation and the U.S. military itself with an ever-increasing amount of risk.

A LACK OF CAPACITY At day’s end, those who defend declining defense investment by pointing to more capable U.S. forces are conducting analysis in a vacuum. We cannot simply measure our own improvement; we must pit that improvement against the advancements of adversaries in both capacity and capability and the outcomes of events U.S. leaders seek to shape or prevent.

From its wartime high of 566,000 active-duty soldiers, the Army will number less than 475,000 at the end of this year. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley illustrated the chasm between what Congress and the president ask of the military and how they provide for it. He called for a total force of 1.2 million soldiers to reduce risk to significant or moderate levels, about 220,000 soldiers above where the Army is headed. 

Yet a recent RAND war game found that U.S. European Command could not prevent Russian occupation of Baltic capitals within three days, leaving follow-on forces to fight through the Russian Kaliningrad exclave, which bristles with weapons and troops. A related force-sizing study concluded that a full-scale North Korean crisis would require almost 190,000 soldiers to achieve U.S. objectives. Even the relatively simple mission of truly and quickly rolling back the Islamic State would require a ground force of 20,000 to 50,000 by most estimates.

A sketch of force structure for U.S. airmen is nearly as bleak. In 2012, the Air Force hoped to maintain front-line fighter strength of around 1,469 even after it truncated the F-22 fleet. It did recognize that U.S. air superiority, once an a priori assumption of war planning, would be in doubt. But budget contractions have resulted in the current Air Force’s dubious honor of being the smallest and oldest in its history, fielding only 1,141 operational fighters as F-15/F-16 retirements outpace F-35 production. Another recent RAND war game showed it would require more fighter air wings than the Air Force currently fields in total to defeat a surge of Chinese aircraft over Taiwan. 

Though the Marine Corps will soon number only 182,000, down from its wartime high of 202,000, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. John Paxton Jr. has noted that even the 2012 baseline of a 187,000-strong Corps was too low. Marine Corps amphibious ships hover at the low end of adequacy in the low 30s, despite a Corps requirement of 38 and a combatant ​commander requirement of 50 or more.

The Navy, with only 272 ships, is set to reach 300 ships by 2019 before peaking at 325 in 2025. But even in this scenario, it faces shortfalls of attack subs and small surface combatants in the mid-2020s, and a forthcoming force structure reassessment is likely to show that the Navy’s 2012 analysis was wildly optimistic. Even now, combatant commanders have only 62 percent of the attack submarines they need. Whether today’s Navy is larger than the pre-1916 Navy is a moot point. How does the current Navy – and more realistically, forward-deployed Pacific Command ships – stack up against its Chinese counterpart?

TRIAGING READINESSThe chickens from the years of doing more with less have come home to roost. Declining force structure amid flat or increasing demand from combatant commanders also negatively affects the military’s readiness in terms of training and maintenance – both already eroded by sequestration. 

The Air Force cannot give its pilots enough flying hours, which negatively affects readiness along with retention and recruitment. Less than half its combat-coded or operational aircraft are considered ready to fly. Reduced funding will force the service to use more contracting support for the F-35A and leave it scrambling to meet unanticipated demand for precision munitions.  

The effect of shrinking Navy force structure, coupled with skyrocketing requirements and gutted naval maintenance, has left its ships and aircraft with an incredible backlog. One-third of Navy and Marine Corps surge forces are ready to deploy today, and the services will recover readiness only by decreasing the number of carrier and amphibious groups they deploy and investing more in stateside maintenance and training. 

To maintain the readiness of forward-deployed Marines, the Corps has given short shrift to the basic training requirements of stateside Marines. Forced to sharpen only the very tip of the spear, Marine Corps surge forces would be unable to conduct large-scale amphibious landings without significant risk of mission failure or unnecessary casualties. 

The Army has improved its readiness from the dark days of 2013 and 2014, but only a third of its brigade combat teams are ready to fight in all types of warfare. Organic Army maintenance continues to atrophy as a result of deployment caps. 

A MOSTLY HOLLOW BUILD-BACK In the past, U.S. forces took to the field secure in the knowledge that their weapons and training outmatched those of the enemy. Technological supremacy was a given; our men and women never joined battle expecting a fair fight. 

That edge is now eroding. In some cases, the gap is closed completely. The Russians outmatch our army in electronic warfare, information operations and long-range precision fires. The Chinese have leapt ahead in hypersonics and counterstealth technology. The Iranians punch far above their weight in cyberwarfare.

More so than its sister services, the Air Force has weakened relative to its adversaries. As China and Russia produce and export advanced air defense and counterstealth systems alongside fifth-generation stealth fighters, the Air Force treads water, buying small numbers of F-35s while spending ever-larger sums on keeping F-15s and F-16s operational – though those aircraft cannot survive on the first-day front lines of modern air combat.

While Secretary Carter’s third offset strategy has sown the seeds of a potential technological revival a decade or more hence, it remains a small effort in both scope and scale. More worrying is the shortfall of current weapons needed for the 2020s. Since 2010, nearly every military program not canceled has been delayed or shrunken in some way. Occasionally, a service will find inventive ways to mitigate the effects of anemic modernization. Forced to retire its OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters without a replacement, for example, the Army moved to pair its AH-64D/E Apaches with MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones to cover the mission. 

In most cases, however, lost capacity and capability have not been replaced. For example, the downsizing of the DDG-1000 program from 32 to three major surface combatants leaves a striking gap in both current naval fire support and in combatants capable in the future of hosting railguns and laser weapons. In still others, upgrades keep old systems relevant, a procurement strategy living off the fumes of the Reagan buildup – particularly prevalent in Army ground vehicles and in the Air Force. 

Simply put, the armed forces are not large enough, modern enough and ready enough to meet today’s or tomorrow’s mission requirements. This is the outcome not only of fewer dollars, but of the reduced purchasing power of those investments, rising unbudgeted costs for politically difficult reforms continuously deferred, and a now-absent bipartisan consensus on U.S. national security that existed for generations. 

What is needed is leadership from the next administration and Congress, starting with a re-articulation of our enduring national interests, strategic principles and military objectives. 

The current inadequate defense budget plan is already $162 billion above the budget caps over the course of the next administration. The first phase of real rebuilding – buying back readiness, targeting investment in modernization and expanding the force – will require another $150 billion to $200 billion over that time period. These sums still pale in comparison to the planned funding lost since 2010.

Yet the next administration and Congress must do more than provide a serious and stable budget environment. They have to lead in reforming core DoD processes and regulations in acquisition, base closures, the military personnel system and civilian workforce management. Without a holistic effort to yank the military and its support functions into the 21st century, recruitment and retention will suffer further.

Without hyperbole, the bad news is that the next five to 10 years could truly see the U.S. military transform from a world-class fighting force to an emaciated shadow of its former self. The good news, however, is that the country possesses the financial and human resources to right this ship. It only needs a leader to take the helm.  

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.