The National Defense Strategy dating back to the Barack Obama presidency is unexecutable, unaffordable and unsustainable in recruiting sufficient numbers needed to maintain a 1.4 million-person active-duty force. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
The headline of the Washington Post's full-page editorial Friday was "The nation needs to rethink our spending on defense." The Post could not be more correct in that recommendation. But the editorial could not have been more off the mark.
To ensure the priorities and spending levels in defense are fit for purpose and achievable and affordable in terms of dollar and personal resources, an overarching strategy is essential. As the redoubtable Sun Tzu correctly observed, without a strategy or knowledge of oneself and the enemy, defeat is inevitable. Whether the Post's specific examples for change are sound or not, without a strategy the outcome is predictable.
After the first two paragraphs made the case for a rethink, the editorial posed this critical question: "How do we ensure our military is best prepared for whatever comes?" The response is absurd. "One obvious answer: by spending smarter."
Lacking a strategy, that answer is to be expected.
However, that rather naive statement demonstrates an absolute absence of understanding of how the United States provides for its common defense through a process that is inefficient and ineffective in the extreme. In fact, in some cases, this process is so irrational that a cynic could conclude that it had to be designed by the KGB, as no American would be stupid enough to implement it.
First, the National Defense Strategy dating back to the Barack Obama presidency is unexecutable, unaffordable and unsustainable in recruiting sufficient numbers needed to maintain a 1.4 million-person active-duty force.
Second, the overlapping congressional budget, authorization and appropriation process is redundant and inconclusive. This inevitably produces a Concurrent Resolution that for the Pentagon means no new starts and freezes substantial spending authority. The consequence is the equivalent of a 10% or more reduction in purchasing power.
Third, the regulatory and oversight processes impose huge inefficiencies, waste and delays in fielding the systems for defending the nation. Some analysts believe these add perhaps 20%-30% more in costs and in lengthy delays.
Fourth, many of the recommendations ignore reality. Building more shipyards, some with a nuclear capability, not only is unaffordable, the nation lacks skilled workers that take years to train -- as long as it will take to build those shipyards.
For the Army (and the other services), increasing "command focus on recruiting" will not work for a simple reason: The size of the cohort of 17- to 25-year-olds physically, mentally and morally qualified, combined with those interested in serving, means that to meet the annual demands for uniform and civilian recruits, about half the base would have to sign up each year.
In practical and statistical terms, that is virtually impossible. And the editorial vastly underestimates the cost of nuclear modernization, which will be several times more than the estimated half-trillion dollars.
Under these circumstances, what might a more relevant editorial advise? The current NDS is flawed. The aims "to compete, deter and, if war comes, defeat" are unobtainable. Compete has not been defined. Neither Russia nor China has been deterred in creating a "no limits" partnership; invading Georgia and Ukraine; militarizing islets in the China seas; and threatening its neighbors.
And how is a nuclear superpower -- Russia -- and a country with 1.4 billion people, a million person army and nuclear weapons -- China -- defeated?
Further, a combination of uncontrolled annual real cost growth of 5% to 7%, plus inflation, yearly budget increases of at least 10% are needed to sustain the current force. The personnel constraints were noted. So what might be a more appropriate option?
For the 21st century, strategy must address not only traditional threats. Massive attacks of disruption and destruction by nature are often more deadly. The number of Americans who died of COVID-19 vastly exceeded all those killed in battle since 1775.
The aims of this strategy are to prevent, contain and limit damage. For the Pentagon, this means in the event of war, confining China to the first island chain running from Japan to Vietnam. Based on how Ukraine blunted the Russian invasion, a porcupine defense would make the costs of any attack by Moscow west too expensive to consider. And the porcupine defense is ideal for Taiwan, raising the question of why Taipei has been reluctant to deploy one.
If implemented, a $650 billion to $750 billion defense budget and an active duty force of 900,000 to 1 million active duty personnel would suffice.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.