One of the key, underpinning elements of President Barack Obama’s new defense strategy is, ostensibly, its “reversibility”: the idea that changes to the size and shape of the U.S. military can be undone in a time of crisis. This applies most of all to the Army and Marine Corps, the branches set to suffer force cuts under the new “strategic guidance.” Administration officials insist that, should events so require, the U.S. military will have retained the core expertise to restore itself in a timely fashion. The American experience in war — particularly in the past 10 years — tells another story: that the concept of “reversibility” is specious and threatens to leave our armed forces dangerously unprepared for future conflicts.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have subjected a shrunken, post-Cold War U.S. military to severe strains. The Pentagon entered the “Long War” hampered not only by successive force cuts and deferred and cancelled modernization programs, but also by the pervasive belief that U.S. high-end technology would permit us to wage conflicts on our terms, with limited “boots-on-the-ground.” As violence in Iraq increased, however, the full consequences of the post-Cold War changes to force structure came into clear view: the military that had been billed as “leaner and meaner” lacked the numbers to carry out crucial missions. In order to properly resource a counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, even before the 2007 “surge,” the Marine Corps had been converted to a mission-set far from its amphibious bread and butter, and reservists of all branches had been called up in increasingly larger numbers. And it was only after the success of the surge in Iraq, and the tamping down of the violence there, that the Pentagon could even begin to think about shifting ground to Afghanistan, where the last “surge” troops did not arrive until September 2010 — roughly nine years after U.S. Special Forces and CIA operatives first arrived in theater. The role of reservists in these wars, while a testament to the character and dedication of our citizen-soldiers, has also illustrated that they are not interchangeable with active-duty, combat troops. Meanwhile, soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors have found themselves deployed at increased rates, with an accompanying toll on them and their families.
These strains have not gone unnoticed. Decisions were made during the Bush years to augment the “end-strength” of both the Army and Marine Corps, although even these upward adjustments did not bring with them the capacity to conduct, as strategy dictated at the time, two major regional contingency operations simultaneously, and were slow to come in any case. The full psychological effects of high-pace deployments are also not yet understood, although, already, higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder have appeared among veterans, and military brass suggest that retention, insulated so far by a poor economy, will worsen.
In short, restoring the strength of the U.S. military after pre-9/11 force cuts has taken time, and has come at a high cost. A smaller and less capable force ceded the initiative to our enemies, placed an enormous burden on the backs of the less than 1% of Americans who serve in uniform and meant that an immense sacrifice in blood and treasure had to be made to regain the upper hand in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan. And, even after 10 years, we have yet to overcome the legacy of the 1990s “peace dividend.” By many standards of readiness, the Army and Marine Corps — and the Air Force and Navy as well — are worse for the wear after two overlapping conflicts.
The Obama administration knows full well what the state of the military is. However, because it would rather shift the country’s spending priorities to domestic programs long favored by Democrats, it has willingly accepted, indeed gone beyond, what the 2011 Budget Control Act required in cuts to national security programs. To give this shift the patina of legitimacy, the administration has prepared a new “strategic guidance” that largely compounds the mistakes of the past. In the fiscal year 2013 budget, where the specific details of the president’s new strategy will be spelled out, we are likely to see deep end-strength cuts, a greater reliance on reserves and postponed modernization programs — all bolstered by the idea that, if anything goes wrong, we can quickly “regenerate” our military strength.
The new strategy comes both in the midst of a continuing war and with additional Pentagon budget cuts likely pending — the product of congressional “sequester” with the failed super committee. It is certain that President Obama’s decisions will leave his successor with constrained choices and greater risks in carrying out the country’s security commitments. Hoping that these constraints and risks can be mitigated by “reversibility” plans is a bet that history suggests is a long shot. Far better for Congress, and perhaps a new president, to challenge the administration’s assumptions and reverse course — a much sounder version of reversibility.
Richard Cleary is a research assistant for the American Enterprise Institute’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies.