Outside View: The new presidency and the future of American military power -- Part 1

By ANTHONY CORDESMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator

WASHINGTON, Nov. 6 (UPI) -- It is a minor miracle that no federal office building or Washington think tank has ever collapsed under the weight of unread transition studies. Presidents-elect simply don't have the time to read the flood of material they are sent, transition teams often spend more time job-seeking than transitioning, and once new administrations actually pick their team at the Cabinet level, Cabinet members tend to conduct their own transition effort.

It is important for President-elect Barack Obama and his team to understand, however, that they face a transition in which they need to take immediate action in several key aspects of national security.


The new president-elect is not going to have the time to meditate, have task forces examine broad changes in strategy, and think conceptually. As of Jan. 20 he will have to deal with the inheritance of ongoing wars and crises in many aspects of defense.


He must deal with the domestic and international financial crisis, but he will not have the luxury of focusing on a narrow range of issues. Obama will be a wartime president from Day 1, and he will have to make immediate decisions and come to grips with immediate national-security priorities:

-- Immediate decisions on how to fight the Afghanistan-Pakistan War and deal with the Iraq War.

-- Reshaping both the Fiscal Year 2010 defense budget -- which will govern military spending from next October -- and the Future Years Defense Program -- which projects out five years -- to create balanced, affordable programs.

-- Dealing with the cost-containment crisis in defense procurement.

-- Restructuring deployment plans to reflect new priorities in Afghanistan while dealing with recruiting and retention programs.

He must simultaneously deal with a crisis in U.S.-Iraqi relations over the future role of U.S. forces in Iraq and a recommendation from his military commanders that some 20,000 to 25,000 more U.S. troops be deployed in Afghanistan.

There will be no pause in the terrorist pressure from al-Qaida in Iraq, a winter campaign will already be under way in Afghanistan, and many of the details of an extraordinarily bleak National Intelligence Estimate on the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan almost certainly will have become public.


Obama also will inherit massive problems in U.S. defense planning, programming and budgeting.

While Defense Secretary Robert Gates has salvaged something from the mess his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld left, he has not resolved a planning, budget and management disaster that permeates every aspect of the Department of Defense. There will be an immediate need to compensate for nearly eight years of conceptual strategies decoupled from force plans and budgets; poorly structured wartime budget supplementals; a grossly mismanaged procurement effort in every military service; and a failure to contain the cost of U.S. defense spending.

Gates may be able to help with a better structured defense budget submission for Fiscal Year 2010, and a Future Years Defense Program for 2010-2014 that corrects some of these problems, but the onus will fall on the new administration.

Restructuring and rebalancing the FYDP, procurement plan, and military manpower and deployment cycles will be critical priorities for immediate action.

Hopefully, Obama will understand that he has no time for mountains of well-meant transition papers with vague, undefined policy recommendations devoid of practical plans or any analysis of how to get the resources to implement them. Obama will also realize he must focus on the now and the near term.


He will have to divide his decision-making priorities into two major time frames, and it is the action plan from now to 2014 that will determine whether he can deal with ongoing wars and reverse the national-security mistakes of the last eight years.

The first, and critically important, time frame is now to the midterm elections two years away. This is the time frame when planning will have to be done for the period until the end of the FYDP in 2014. The "bubble" or prediction point for which reasonable estimates can be made on Afghanistan-Pakistan and Iraq is less than a year, and the cost-containment crisis in defense spending already exists.

The more intellectually interesting time frame is the long term, from 2015 to 2030. It is simply impossible to make valid predictions to these time points, but procurement and reset decisions made now have 15- to 25-year life cycles.

Decisions about rebuilding U.S. forces have five- to seven-year cycles, as do attempts to shift international alliances and restructure U.S. civil-military structures.

The time will come for detailed planning for the period beyond 2014, but it will have to be the second or third year of the administration, and such planning is valuable only as a "control" that makes current planning more realistic. No one can predict the details of the challenges to U.S. national security more than five years from now, and no longer-term plan will survive engagement with reality.


Obama will inherit a wide range of immediate problems that are Rumsfeld's legacy. He will also inherit what has become a failed planning, programming and budgeting process. Left to their own devices, the current team of policy planners and service chiefs of staff seem to prefer vague conceptual strategies over real-world force plans, procurement plans and program budgets.

The vacuous exercises to draft Quadrennial Defense Reviews over the last decade, and the equally meaningless conceptual strategy documents emerging from the chairman of the Joint Staff and service chiefs, have made this all too clear. "Strategy" has become so decoupled from detailed plans and budgets, and from tangible, difficult decision-making, that it has virtually lost its meaning.

This end result is that the new president and his secretary of defense will have to reshape the Department of Defense and U.S. national security policy to deal with each of the following institutional and resource constraints:

-- Decoupling of "strategy" from net assessment, force plans, modernization plans and realistic program budgets.

-- Past failures in cost containment and affordable trade-offs in procurement, manpower, readiness and reset, which have led to a 20 percent to 25 percent underfunding of the current FYDP.

-- Service irresponsibility and resource fights, which have led to resource rivalry rather than effective joint planning and budgeting.


-- The lack of effective civilian "partners" for the military in Iraq and Afghanistan and no prospect of getting them during the first term in office.

-- Procurement-driven strategies that reflect major cost escalation, force cuts, cuts in procurement goals, delays in delivery and serious questions about future life cycle costs.

-- Failure to adapt to the foreseeable squeeze on federal spending from rising civilian entitlement costs compounded by an unforeseeable economic crisis.

-- Growing recruiting and retention problems that affect manpower quality and cost, not just numbers.

-- The need to rebalance the overall structure and missions of active and reserve components for cost and manning reasons as well as evolving war-fighting needs.


(Part 2: Complex problems and contingent challenges.)


(Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which first published a version of this piece, but the views in it are the author's alone.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)


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