What worries me most about 2018

By Dr. Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Jan. 1, 2018 at 1:24 PM
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Jan. 1 (UPI) -- 2018 could be a very worrisome year.

Rumors of war permeate from the Pentagon over North Korea and Kim Jung Un's nuclear ambitions. Relations with Russia and China are dismal and could worsen. While the Islamic State has been driven from its caliphates in Syria and Iraq, the danger is far from over and is metastasizing across the globe.

The stock markets were supercharged increasing by 20-25 percent in value. Price-to-earnings ratios, a onetime important indicator of where markets are headed, are stratospheric. It is unclear how the tax bill will jump start the economy. If it doesn't, what comes up is subject to economic gravity and will come down. And wage and income disparity still persists.

Climate and bizarre weather patterns, whether droughts or uncontrolled forest fires on the U.S. West Coast or massive floods in the East, could persist despite denial of the realities of global warming. Another pandemic may not be as controllable as ebola was. And starvation is a way of life for far too many inhabitants of this planet.

Yet, despite this litany of potential crises and explosive events with global consequences, the one forecast that worries me most because of its inevitability is the prospect of our military disintegrating into a hollow force. A hollow force, as this column warns, is a military that is unready, not sufficiently equipped or trained to carry out its responsibilities to defend the nation. It is a military with low morale and one in which recruiting for and maintaining a professional all-volunteer force may prove impossible, or at least very taxing.

This is what happens after every war winds down, leading to a dramatic reduction in our forces. After nearly 17 years of continuing high tempo and combat operations, the current forces are overstretched with no end in sight. Worse, the Pentagon is burdened with a budgetary-bureaucratic-regulatory-legal system that is so odious it must have been designed by the KGB. Not only has the Department of Defense not had a budget approved on time, the damage done by continuing resolutions includes preventing rational planning. The Budget Control Act has led to underfunding the Pentagon by a large margin.

Compounding this bureaucrtic nightmare is the hellish effect of uncontrolled real internal annual cost growth of 5-7 percent. This means that if the Pentagon is funded to $600 billion, it would need an extra $30-45 billion to stay even. At 7 percent, principal doubles in ten years.

This cost growth applies to every item from people, the most important and most expensive to weapons and combat systems and logistics and supply. The formidable Defense Business Board has been warning of this trend and its impact on the forces for some time.

While the service chiefs and chairman of the joint chiefs have been vocal about the adverse effects these factors are having on the forces -- even calling Congress derelict in not passing a budget on time -- the fact is that the U.S. military is already being hollowed out. Only three of the Army's 58 Brigade Combat Teams are assessed as ready to fight tonight. The Air Force is 2,000 pilots short and many of its aircraft are not flyable. The same is true of the Navy and the glaring example of a Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine unable to get underway for two years because money was not available for a scheduled overhaul instructive.

This happened after Vietnam. The force became hollow and unready to fight effectively if war came. It took nearly two decades to rebuild the force and Desert Storm in 1991 was vindication lifting the shadow of Vietnam.

Today, three and only three choices exist.

First, take little decisive action and let nature take its course, which is the most likely outcome. Second, spend what is needed to maintain the current force at acceptable levels of readiness and modernization, which will cost about $800 billion a year with enough to meet the uncontrolled cost growth issue. Third, is to balance realistically the strategy-operational requirements-modernization-readiness-force level-budget mismatches.

Given the tax bill and the mounting fiscal deficits -- especially for mandatory spending that will accrue to about $10 trillion over the next decade, meaning a national debt of about $30 trillion -- greater spending will not work. Hence, the nation must make the toughest choice of adjusting this budget-force-strategy mismatch.

My guess is that we will not. Hence, my greatest concern now is what happens to the military. If it does, shame on us.

Dr. Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished columnist; senior advisor at the Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security; chairman of CNIGuard Ltd and the Killowen Group; and whose current book is Anatomy of Failure--Why America Loses Every War It Starts. He is reachable at @harlankullman on Twitter.

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