The old saying, "No money, no Swiss," dates to the early days of the state, but it is no less relevant today than it was 500 years ago. Money is the lifeblood of militaries now just as it was then. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the United States is running out of it.
The Panic of ’08 is in full swing, and whether it will end in recession or depression no one knows. Either way DOD will find it is no longer at the head of the line at the federal soup kitchen. Bailing out the economy will take precedence over fighting foreign bogeyman, not to speak of spending hundreds of billions preparing to battle some hypothetical "peer competitor." DOD’s trough won’t run dry, but it should expect thinner swill and less of it.
How might the U.S. best meet the challenge of less money for defense? To start with, we must impose the right priorities on the Pentagon. I say impose, because left to its own devices the building will cut combat units first and programs last. A new administration must demand the opposite: as resources diminish, combat units, especially in the land forces, must be retained while programs, contractors, headquarters and service bureaucracies are quietly garroted. Note: this would mean a very small Air Force.
Next, we must reduce commitments. That starts with getting out of both of the wars we are now fighting, in Iraq and Afghanistan. No activity of the state is more expensive than war, much less two. All over the world, we need to pull back troops and our long nose, the one meddling in someone else’s business.
In the face of falling defense budgets, the work of the military reformers of the 1970s and 1980s may prove useful. They argued that by putting people and ideas over hardware, we could have more effective forces at a lower cost. Military reform was scuppered by the vast tide of money that flowed into DOD starting in 1980. But with that tide now receding, the work of people such as John Boyd and Chuck Spinney may re-emerge from the muck. Secretary Gates has been voicing views that have a strong similarity to what the reformers were saying twenty and more years ago, including a suggestion that cheaper, simpler weapons that actually work in combat may be more useful than rococo objet d’art such as the F-22 and the Future Contract System. Putti are more comfortable on chapel ceilings than in foxholes.
Fortunately, a few people have kept the reformers’ ideas alive and updated them, waiting for the financial crisis that has now come. Winslow Wheeler and the Strauss Military Reform Project have published several books on the subject, with a new volume soon going to press. A seminar of field grade officers did a lengthy paper on the subject which I gave to Vice President Cheney early in the current administration, obviously to no effect. And the Fourth Generation seminar I lead at Quantico continues to write new doctrine. With some official interest and support, these efforts could make a difference. At the very least, they mean we do not have to start at square one in the quest for new directions. The spade work has been done.
The key to bringing America’s armed forces through the Panic of ’08 and the following recession or depression is to act quickly. If we continue to overextend our commitments while pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into legacy forces and systems, we will bring about a general collapse. Historically, this has usually taken the form of irredeemable military and foreign policy defeats coupled with runaway inflation: think 17th-century Spain. Avoiding Spain’s fate requires the next administration to make some major decisions, and set a very different course, right at the beginning. In most administrations, that is the only time large course corrections are possible, before the usual interests have established a stranglehold.
In ordinary times, the chance any of this would happen would be zero. But the Crash of 2008 means we are not living in ordinary times.