Since the end of World War II, the American military has had two primary missions. Its first primary mission has been strategic deterrence. Its second primary mission has been the projection of conventional military power over intercontinental distances. Strategic deterrence is not disproportionately expensive. Its single-purpose weapon systems are not manpower intensive to operate and have relatively low total ownership costs. By comparison, the projection of large conventional forces is exceedingly expensive, precisely because it is manpower intensive and because its weapon systems have very high total ownership costs. The impacts of this mission dominate the US military budget.
The US is the only global military power that currently has the capability to project more than minimum military force more than several hundred kilometers beyond its borders. Moreover, because it has aircraft carriers, long-range bombers, and other unique military assets, it is the only global military power capable of meaningful forced entry against a remote foe. Given adequate time, the US could defend Timbuktu just like it could defend Washington, DC.
The US spends more on national defense than the next seventeen largest countries combined. It has a vast inventory of advanced weapon systems: ships, aircraft, armored fighting vehicles, missiles, etc. But conventional military power has to be realistically measured in regional terms, i.e. it’s not what we have in total, rather it’s what we can actually deploy in some remote region within a constrained time frame. So the question remains, does this unparalleled annual military budget generate decisive regional military power which can be generated in a timely manner?
Israel now clearly has the western world’s most cost effective national defense system and, outside the US, almost certainly fields the world’s most technically advanced and well-trained tactical ground and air forces. But it is solely a regional power that lacks any pretense of force projection capability. Other international regional militaries are rarely as efficiently organized or as technically advanced and well-trained as Israel’s. It is considered reasonable to compare the annual military budgets and the force structures generated by the Israeli and American military systems. This permits a comparison of the relative costs required to generate regional military power. Israel currently spends about 2.3 cents to our dollar annually on national defense. Our Army, National Guard and Marines can together field about 90 small combat brigades, which incorporate over 200 maneuver battalions. Of these, only 32 tank battalions are equipped with about 1,850 tanks. The combat readiness of the average US brigade is relatively low, reflecting the fact that 40% are National Guard units. These National Guard brigades would require 4 to 5 months to be made combat ready. It requires 4 to 5 very large specialized RO-RO ships to transport each brigade overseas, plus several additional ships to carry their fuel, ammunition and supplies. It would take about 6 months for the US to project the maximum achievable regional force structure of about 45 combat ready brigades (with 100 maneuver battalions) to the Middle East. At present, the US only has 2 small combat brigades deploying 114 tanks located in Kuwait. By comparison, within four days, Israel can currently deploy about 65 combat ready brigades with nearly 200 maneuver battalions, including about 100 tank battalions equipped with 3,700 tanks. Within 2 to 3 additional weeks, Israel could generate another 12 brigades with 27 additional tank battalions and another 1,000 tanks. The USAF currently fields 60 combat squadrons equipped with about 1,250 F-15, F-16, A-10 and F-22 combat jets. The USN’s ten carrier wings contain another 480 F-18s and the four USMC air wings about 250 more F-18s and AV-8Bs. A portion of these squadrons are non-combat operational conversion units. Many USAF squadrons are solely dedicated to the air-to-air or close air support missions. Only a proportion of our aerial force structure would be deployed in any one theater of operations. Combined, our three tactical air forces could, therefore, generate about 700 daily attack sorties against Iran 96 days from now if, and only if, about 12 large air bases with logistical support were made available in adjoining or nearby countries. The Israeli Air Force is much smaller. It’s 14 active squadrons only currently operate about 340 F-15 and F-16 combat jets; but, all are multi-role. Its daily sortie rate is much higher than that of US tactical air forces. It can also rapidly mobilize additional reserve combat aircraft. It requires only 96 hours for the Israeli Air Force to be fully mobilized. Once mobilized, it can generate about 700 daily attack sorties against Iran plus another 1,200 versus Hammas, Hezbollah and Syria.
The irrefutable fact is that Israel can generate over twice the regional military power as the US and do it thirty times faster, all this generated using a tiny fraction of our annual budget. The conclusion must be that US conventional air and land forces are undersized, slow to respond, and prohibitively expensive. Why has the US been unable to turn our vast annual military expenditures into decisive regional military power? There are several reasons for this.
First and foremost is the fact that we maintain a predominantly active force structure which is based on the use of all volunteer personnel. These volunteers are very heavily recruited, receive competitive salaries and excellent benefits, including large enlistment and reenlistment bonuses. After only twenty years of active duty, they can retire with pensions equal to 50% of their peak salary, increased thereafter to offset inflation. More significantly, they, and their families, including children up to the age of 21, thereafter receive total health insurance coverage at negligible cost to them.
In the US military, salaries are primarily based on rank, not time in service. Billets within organizations are rigidly assigned to specific ranks. This has resulted in an “up or out” personnel system than generates a constant rotation of personnel progressively shifting from assignment to assignment. Over the last 50 years, ranks have consistently been inflated to increase individual salaries and benefits. Since many volunteers do not reenlist, the overall personnel turnover rate is nearly 20% a year. Historically, 5 people have to be recruited to generate 4 basic training graduates and, because of rotation, 5 personnel have to be in service to fill 4 billets. The total annual cost of crewing a single billet is now over $240,000 a year, not including equipment, sustainment or operational costs.
The second major factor impacting the inefficiency of the US DoD is the inevitable impact of force projection and the need to maintain at least the illusion of an ability to conduct forced entry. In order to project military forces overseas, a vast inventory of highly specialized militarized sea and air transports and a relatively high number of air-to-air tankers are required. Forced entry necessitates the existence of specialized amphibious ships supported by aircraft carrier battle groups, a large force of paratroops and the tactical cargo aircraft needed to deploy them and heavy bombers with intercontinental range. Moreover, because US ground and air forces might be deployed into areas devoid of logistics facilities, they must maintain a large number of diverse mobile support units and a disproportionate quantity of dedicated military trucking. Inevitably, this means that the “teeth to tail” ratio of the US military is lower than that of regional powers. In order to speed up the response of US forces to international crises, we have put several brigades of Army and Marine equipment on forward-based ships. Other ships carry the equipment required to turn a bare or civilian air base into a functioning military hub. Fuel, ammunition and other supplies are also forward-deployed. All of this further increases the overhead costs of our military.
For all of our investment in unique force projection resources, that no other country can come close to matching, the truth is that our ground and air forces simply cannot be quickly deployed. It takes a minimum of 8 to 10 weeks to bring an active division to full strength and shift it overseas. Moreover, our forced entry capability is also very limited, particularly against land-locked foes. Relatively, we can do far more than other major powers that claim to have a force projection capability. But, in regional terms, our military power is very slow to deploy and has very limited capability.
The high cost of our labor and the inefficiency associated with force projection does not totally explain the low cost effectiveness of the American defense system. The third major factor contributing to the gross inefficiency of our national defense system is the combined impacts of a careerist, unionized officer corps working in parallel with a military industrial complex dominated by a few industrial giants. The US military now often talks about our operational jointness, but the reality is that it remains a series of quite separate military unions, each defined by an officer’s military occupational specialty, within which he/she will be promoted. For example, the US Navy is comprised of an air union, itself subdivided into several sub-unions, a surface warfare union, a submarine union, an amphibious warfare union, a special forces union, and a small mine warfare union. All of these unions fight to maintain their relative priority, first within the Navy, and, second, within the Department of Defense. Each of these unions is the enemy of all others, as they maneuver to gather annual budgetary allocations and senior officer billets. The enemy of the Navy is the Air Force and the Army, the Marines. Force structures and procurement decisions are almost never based on military effectiveness or national needs, but, rather, on the maintenance of proportionate shares of annual budgets and the generation of the largest possible numbers of officer billets. In fact, maintaining the number of command and staff billets often drives force structure decisions. For example, the USAF has long recognized the cost effectiveness of Israel’s use of reserve air crew within active squadrons in order to increase the wartime daily sortie rate and to provide each squadron with multi-role capability, but they have not adopted this practice. They have deliberately chosen to maintain the highest number of squadrons in order to maintain command billets for senior officers. The Navy has followed suit and has maintained the largest feasible number of aircraft carriers, while progressively reducing the number of combat airplanes organic to each carrier.
In the US, the officer corps desire for force structure stability drives a like-for-like procurement strategy. Procurement is decided by Congress, not based on military need but by domestic politics. As an example, the Aegis weapon system was mounted on the Spruance class destroyer at the insistence of the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, because a lucrative sole source construction contract could then be issued to the shipyard located in the state he represented. Now, we are reduced to a handful of mega giant military industrial companies. They conceive acquisition concepts designed to maximize their market position irrespective of the impact on national security. A classic example of this is the prohibitively expensive and low performing F-35 aircraft, which is tied to a profit-making but totally illogical development process.
What does this all mean? The answer is simple. America’s huge military spending is irrelevant because its defense system is so unbelievably inefficient. The Pentagon and the military industrial complex make the old US auto industry look like the paradigm of efficiency! Lots of financial resources go in, but what comes out is limited in quantity and flows slowly.
Based on the essays that I have previously written on the US Navy, US Army, the Marine Corps, and the US Air Force, and the blatantly obvious inefficiency of our overall national defense system, it is time for profound transformation of the Department of Defense as follows:
• Our military labor is prohibitively expensive. There is no national will to reintroduce conscription. Our land forces are undersized and slow to deploy. We do not have forces of adequate size to effectively perform nation-building. Our ground forces are incapable of fighting a large sustained land war. The active Army and Marine Corps should, therefore, be downsized from 54 brigades to about 30. Our National Guard and Marine Corps reserve units take months to retrain prior to any combat deployment. They all should be phased out. Since nation-building would no longer be a national military objective, and we would not fight non-existential major land wars overseas, almost all forward-deployed US ground troops in Asia and Europe should also be returned to the United States.
• The cost of each regional USAF combat sortie is disproportionately expensive because our Air Force is inefficiently organized. Downsize the USAF, ANG/AFR fast jet force structure by about 40%. Use ANG/AFR personnel to supplement active squadrons, using blue-gold crewing in order to increase their wartime daily sortie rate. Make all USAF squadrons multi-role.
• USN aircraft carriers are underutilized and the cost of their strike sorties is disproportionately expensive. Reduce the number of in-service commissioned aircraft carriers from 11 to 7, plus 2 in long-term refit that are temporarily decommissioned without crews. Create 4 reserve surge teams in order to double the daily wartime sortie rate of forward-deployed carrier air groups. Disband USMC fast jet combat squadrons. Reduce amphibious shipping.
• Reduce the quantity of spares and ordnance held in the war reserve, recognizing that the lack of trained personnel replacements makes it impossible for the US to conduct long-term high intensity warfare.
• Downsize our specialized and costly force projection capability, recognizing that our current ability to respond is already inadequate.
• Break up the mega national security firms including Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and L3, in order to increase competitiveness and innovation and reduce their ability to influence Congress.
• Strengthen DoD’s civil service, which again should become responsible for both research and development and procurement. Strengthen our arsenals and Naval shipyards.
If all of this were done, the US military budget could likely be reduced to under 400 billion dollars a year, making a balanced national budget feasible. The illusion of world-wide US military power might be shattered, but the reality would be about the same as today. America would remain dominant in the air and at sea. Our national security would be preserved at reasonable cost.
I have long believed that any major reduction in the US defense budget should be based on a strategic assessment that fully reflects the reality of military power. This proposal is derived from a serious comparative assessment of each of our military arms and an evaluation of our ability to generate regional military power in a timely fashion. I have concluded that our current military is an over-priced and unusable instrument of national power. Our national security strategy has long been based on an assumption of American exceptionalism. This view reflects an illusion of power, not the reality.