CAPITOL HILL: We’ve had nearly two years of hearings about how hard the automatic budget cuts called sequestration would hit the Department of Defense. Yesterday, we saw something new. For the first time, the uniformed chiefs of all four services publicly told Congress that they have big problems with their civilian bosses’ plan to cope with sequestration, the Strategic Choices and Management Review.
The SCMR, they said, makes dangerously optimistic assumptions about how big the next war will be, how long it will take to win, how big a force we need to win it, and how quickly that force can be made dready to fight.
Secretary Chuck Hagel’s SCMR – pronounced “skimmer” or “scammer” depending on your degree of cynicism – laid out a range of options that are supposed to guide Pentagon planners as they thrash out two alternative budgets, one assuming full sequestration and one assuming lesser cuts, for fiscal year 2015 and beyond. It’s also become the de facto first step of the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).
With the Army’s money, manpower, and missions coming under the heaviest fire inside the Pentagon, it’s no surprise that the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, has already made public some doubts about the SCMR: It makes “somewhat rosy assumptions” that are “somewhat dangerous,” he told a House Armed Services Committee hearing in September. But at Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Odierno went much further – and was joined, for the first time that I’ve seen, by the other three service chiefs. Literally sitting in a row, they chimed in one after the other to back Odierno up.
“That a war in Korea would last less than a year, there’s nothing that makes me feel that that’s a good assumption,” Odierno said, responding to a question from Nebraska Republican Deb Fisher. As Odierno and other critics describe them, the SCMR scenarios further assume that the enemy won’t use weapons of mass destruction – such as North Korea’s nukes or Syria’s sarin gas. It also assumes that US forces will quickly converge on the war zone from both US bases and commitments around the world, quickly prevail with minimal casualties, and quickly pull out again without any prolonged and messy clean-up afterwards.
If the war does drag on unexpectedly, Odierno said, the SCMR “also makes rosy assumptions about our ability to quickly build a larger force.” In the last decade, he noted, it took 32 months from the time the Bush administration decided to grow the Army to the time the new units were all ready. “You’ve got to recruit them and you’ve got to train them,” Odierno told the senators with rising passion. “You can’t do that within a six or eight month period, it’s impossible to do, and we made assumptions that we could magically build this huge army in a very short period of time.”
Even bringing back the draft doesn’t solve the problem, he said: “Even then it would take longer than six months to a year; it would probably still take two years plus to build an army. It’s assumptions like that that I think are incredibly risky.”
Next up was the softer-spoken Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who damned the SCMR with the faintest of praise. The SCMR laid out options for a future based on specific assumptions, the admiral explained: “As Gen. Odierno said, ‘OK, well, that’s nice, but we’ve never been able to predict that future, and it’s kind of dangerous if you’re wrong.'”
(Protip: When a guy as polite as Greenert says “well, that’s nice,” especially in the tone he used on Thursday, he does not actually think it is “nice” at all ).
The 10 years of sequestration cuts required in current law would take the Navy from 286 ships today, with roughly a third deployed around the world at any given time, to around 255 or 260 ships by 2020, Greenert said. “If we reduce force structure to a level where we are not out and about, our allies are worrying about our reliability [and] we’re not deterring,” he said. “Potential adversaries can get out of hand.”
If deterrence does fail, shortfalls in training and maintenance funds have already forced Greenert to reduce the number of aircraft carriers ready to “surge” from US homeports from three to one. And if you need more forces than you thought, new ships take even longer to build than new ground units – assuming your industrial base hasn’t so withered for want of business that it can’t build enough new ships at all. “The ability to produce ready forces, you’ve got to look into that very closely,” Greenert warned, “and as Gen. Odierno said, there were some assumptions made.”
“It takes a long time to build the force, the people,” agreed the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos. “It takes a long time to develop ships, airplanes. We’re seeing that now with the Joint Strike Fighter.”
But what about the SCMR specifically, Sen. Fisher prodded. “I share my colleague’s apprehensions about the assumptions. I think they were too optimistic,” Amos said. “But,” he hastened to add, “it was helpful because it gave a range [of options]. It energized the dialogue.”
Lastly, and more enthusiastically, the Air Force Chief of Staff chimed in with his critique. “SCMR was underlined by an assumption that our force was fully ready, and that allowed you to execute the strategy,” said Gen. Mark Welsh. “We’re clearly not there today.”
The Readiness Problem
If your force is just barely big enough to win a major war, then you’d better to be able to get all of it to the warzone in short order. Setting aside for a moment whether or not the Strategic Choices and Management Review sets the size of the future force too low, sequestration has already reduced the military’s readiness to respond.
“This is the lowest readiness level I’ve seen within our army since I’ve been serving, for the last 37 years,” Gen. Odierno told the senators.
It’s not just the Army, either. To fit under the sequestration caps for fiscal year 2014, the Air Force would cut flying hours by up to 15 percent, reducing routine training and cancelling some major wargames outright. “As a result,” read Gen. Welsh’s prepared testimony, “many of our flying units will be unable to fly at the rates required to maintain mission readiness for three to four months at a time.”
As for the Navy’s nine carrier air wings, Adm. Greenert is counting on congressional authority to “reprogram” money – i.e. to raid lower-priority accounts – just to give all of them the minimum amount of flying time required to be certified as safe to fly, the so-called tactical hard deck. “That doesn’t solve readiness, but it gets it to a level that we can sustain this reduced level,” he said with a grim chuckle. “Otherwise we start spiraling” even further down and ground as many as five air wings altogether, Greenert told reporters after the hearing. The remaining four wings will be at higher levels of readiness, either deployed on carriers at sea or about to go.
The Marine Corps, by contrast, has not cut readiness – but only at the price of slashing everything else, from base maintenance to weapons programs. That can’t go on indefinitely, the commandant said. “I’m paying that price to maintain that readiness, to be your crisis response force, but that will only last probably not later than 2017. I’ll start seeing erosion in around a year and a half,” said Gen. Amos. “We are headed towards a force in not too many years that will be hollow back home and not ready to deploy,” meaning that Marines not currently aboard ship on global patrol will not be trained, equipped, and ready to go to war.
“If they do deploy in harm’s way,” Amos warned, “we’ll end up with more casualties.”
But a major war would require all Marines to deploy, ready or not. Internal Marine Corps studies say the service will lose one of its three combat divisions under full sequestration, Amos said. That’s enough to maintain regular global patrols to respond to local crises, albeit with “dangerously” little time to recuperate in between them, Amos said. In an all-out war, however, “this is a Marine Corps that would deploy to a major contingency, fight, and not return until the war was over,” he said. “We will empty the entire bench. There would be no rotational relief like we had in Iraq and Afghanistan. Marines that joined the Corps during that war would likely go straight from the drill field to the battlefield… a formula for more American casualties.”
Then there’s the Army. Odierno has already said the service is down to two brigades fully trained, equipped, and available for any contingency that might arise outside Afghanistan – although he later made clear to me he isn’t counting the “Global Response Force” brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, which would make three. (Since the lightweight GRF is designed to airdrop rapidly to a crisis zone but not to hang around for sustained combat, there is some logic in Odierno not including it in his go-to-war force). It’ll take to July to get up to seven ready and available brigades in a balanced mix: two light infantry brigades, basically foot troops; two brigades in eight-wheel-drive Stryker vehicles; two brigades of heavy armored vehicles; and one “combat aviation brigade” of helicopters.
“We’ll stay at seven and hopefully over time we’ll be able to increase that, but right now seven is about the most we can do,” Odierno told me when I slipped past an anxious aide to accost him after Thursday’s hearing.
Those seven on-call brigades will presumably get the funds to go to the Army’s famed Combat Training Centers at Fort Irwin, Calif. and Fort Polk, La. for the rigorous wargames that have been the secret of the Army’s tactical success since the 1980s. The next set of seven will need to through that full training regimen as well. (It takes two, three, or even four units going through the recover-train-deploy cycle to keep one fully ready at any given time). But what about everybody else?
“The rest of the Army will be able to do minimal home-station training,” Odierno told me. His prepared testimony explicitly calls this “tiered readiness,” a separate-and-unequal system in which roughly 80 percent of the force is never fully manned, equipped, and ready. (Previously, Army leaders had tried to avoid the dreaded word “tiered”).
In a crisis, that 80 percent will require weeks or months to get fully combat-ready. But the SCMR scenarios don’t give the Army that much time. That leaves the service with two options. It can send troops into battle inadequately trained and equipped, which the 1950 disaster of Task Force Smith showed is a recipe for defeat and dead Americans. Or it can leave those units that are fully ready in combat for months without relief, which World War II showed was a recipe for post-traumatic stress disorder and, again, unnecessary casualties as soldiers’ tactical skills decayed from sheer exhaustion.
Of course, that’s not a problem if the boys are home by Christmas. “The nation needs to keep the capacity to defeat another nation on the ground… but we don’t see that as being a long fight. We can’t afford it,” said no less a leader than the Vice-Chairman of the Joint Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld, told the Association of the US Army in September. “I think it would be a different fight: one that’s shorter, faster-paced, and much harder.”
For many in the Army, though, that sounds a little too much like Rumsfeld’s confidence in swift victory through “shock and awe.”
“You chase the wrong assumptions and you’re not prepared for the next fight,” one Army general told me. “I was in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down; I was in Hohenfels training [for a Soviet invasion], and then a month later we’re invading Panama.”
“Look at the planning assumptions with the advent of atomic weapons in 1945,” he added, when America thought our nuclear monopoly would endure forever and deter any adversary without the need for expensive ground forces. “Look at just five years later when the Army was thrust into war on the Korean peninsula unprepared,” the general went on. “That’s what keeps me up at night, that we are chasing the wrong assumptions again.”
“It may be popular to proclaim we are entering a new age where land wars are obsolete, yet history is rife with wars that leaders knew would never be fought,” Odierno declared at the hearing. If we get our forecast wrong, he said, “in the end, the weight of those assumptions is not going to be on me. It’s going to be on our soldiers, our young men and women … and it results in more casualties.”