America’s Military at a Crossroads
Image Credit: U.S. Navy Feature Collections via Flickr

America’s Military at a Crossroads


More than a decade after initiating the “War on Terror,” along with invasions and occupations that brought regime change to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington’s defense planners face the arduous task of refocusing America’s military towards the threats of the future: defeating anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weapons and strategies that are quickly being adopted by nations and non-state actors alike.

How will the United States deal with this challenge?

Any defense analyst will tell you that reading the tea leaves when it comes to the future of America’s military these days is a thankless task. Those of us who track such developments for a living are fed an endless stream of information that, when combined, are prone to produce information overload. Even so, two paths seem pretty clear.

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The first choice is not really a choice at all. The United States could have a military that has been slashed to the bone thanks to massive cuts in spending through what is known as sequestration. Without any sort of strategy or purpose besides cutting costs and shrinking Washington’s massive budget deficit, this military would be unable to meet the challenges of the future, costing blood and treasure in the process while truly becoming “hollowed out.” Or it could have a smaller, leaner but high-tech military that can fight from long distances and that has a clear, defined strategy: defeating forces that would deny America’s military access to the global commons across multiple domains. The key to this? The ability to develop new weapons systems to strike from long distance.

America’s Military: Death by Sequestration? It’s Possible

During the recent budget battle that brought America to the brink of default, very little was mentioned about cuts to the nation’s military, cuts that have already had an impact on readiness, training practices, and the ability of Washington to react in a crisis. While many politicians have sought to replace the sequester with some sort of common-sense defense planning, the cuts remained in place. They are already being felt and could degrade America’s military edge as nations like China and Iran develop specific anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weapons to deny Washington’s access to the commons. And given China’s recent declaration of an ADIZ over the East China Sea, a crisis is no longer inconceivable.

“Sequestration poses the most serious threat to our military’s readiness since the days of the ‘hollow force’ after the Vietnam War” notes U.S. congressman and The Diplomat contributor J. Randy Forbes.

“Today, only four percent of our Army brigades are fully ready and available to execute combat operations. Army and Marine units that aren’t scheduled for immediate deployment to Afghanistan have seen their training dramatically reduced. Our Air Force pilots have had their flight hours cut to the bone and only about 39 percent of the Air Force’s combat fleet is now rated as “fully mission ready,” he added.

“Things are growing so dire that the chiefs of all four services recently testified to the House Armed Services Committee that they are currently unable to meet the requirements of the National Defense Strategy- meaning that our readiness has been impaired to such an extent that the basic capabilities of our armed forces have now been called into serious question.”

After 9/11, America’s military budget skyrocketed to meet the challenge presented by Al-Qaeda and commitments Washington made in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, with U.S. forces out of Iraq and slowly withdrawing from Afghanistan, combined with large deficits and mounting debt, cuts to American armed forces were all but inevitable. However, cuts that have no strategic purpose, but are made just for the sake of cost savings and deficit slashing, could come back to haunt those who made them.

“Sequestration cuts are having a deleterious effect on U.S. military capabilities because they are being carried out without proper planning or strategic guidance,” explained Todd Harrison, a Senior Fellow of defense budget studies for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments here in Washington D.C.

“In 2013, sequestration cut $37 billion from the defense budget, and DoD did not have a plan for how to implement these cuts in a strategic manner. If current law remains in effect, DoD will have to cut another $21 billion in 2014 – again without a strategic plan to guide the cuts,” he noted.

“If these cuts continue for the rest of the decade, as the Budget Control Act requires, the United States will ultimately have to make a strategic choice between maintaining a significant presence in the Middle East and increasing its presence in the Asia/Pacific region. It is not likely to have the capacity or capability to do both to the extent currently envisioned.”

Having to make such colossal choices was once unthinkable. If sequestration is left in place, clearly it will have a major impact on America’s standing in the world, including its status as superpower. Regional allies will rightly wonder if they can really count on America in their darkest hour. It could also lead states who face rouge nations or challenges on their border to dramatically boost their own defense spending, possible leading to destabilizing arms races in places like Northeast and South Asia.

While the future appears bleak for America’s armed forces, there are those who argue Washington does have another path it could take. With a keen focus on the A2/AD challenges of tomorrow, the U.S. could craft a strategic vision that harnesses America’s technological edge.

With targeted investments in technologies like unmanned aircraft launching from U.S. carriers, a new generation of long-range bombers as well as new nuclear-powered submarines bristling with long-range strike weapons, America would have more than enough military might to hold off any future anti-access challengers when combined with other parts of its military arsenal. As part of a long-range strategy, whether based on capable operational concepts like AirSea Battle or something similar, Washington would gain a clear edge over A2/AD competitors for years to come.

Keeping the Carrier Viable: Enter UCLASS 

One of the greatest offensive weapons of all time, the American flattop, is now under threat from weapons like carrier-killer ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles that in mass could overwhelm its defenses and render it as obsolete as the battleship. Yet Washington could have a solution to that problem: developing unmanned, long-range strike platforms that can launch from carriers and out-range the anti-access weapons and keep American carriers in the fight for years to come. Best of all, such weapons need not break the bank.

“The UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike) will enable aircraft carriers to find and strike targets more than 1,200 miles away or search for more than 10 hours without refueling,” explained Bryan Clark, also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“UCLASS will likely be stealthier and have two to three times the range of today’s F/A-18 Super Hornets and thus better able to operate against anti-access threats. UCLASS’ payload, however, will likely be less than today’s manned aircraft.”

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