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Restoring America’s Military After Iraq

Experts discuss strategies for rebuilding the overstretched American military to address the evolving nature of warfare.

When a group of military experts gathered today at the Center for American Progress, there was one thing they all agreed on: Our military faces a crisis. It’s a multifaceted crisis, fed by manpower shortages, recruitment and retention problems, equipment shortages, and budget shortfalls. Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at CAP, said that the analysis of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan gives us an opportunity to make the changes necessary to reform our military. The question is whether we will make the right choices.

One way to achieve the reform, said Major General Robert Scales of the Army, is to invest in improving infantry protection, since infantry deaths account for 81 percent of all Americans in uniform killed in the last 50 years. “If dead Americans are our greatest liability,” said Scales, “you would think a high priority would be to keep soldiers and infantrymen alive.” But the rapidly increasing military budget is not prioritizing the troops on the ground, and rather takes a backseat to the Pentagon culture that is “obsessed with a technocratic approach” to budgeting and military development.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Michael Dunn had a different priority: rebuilding the Air Force. The Air Force, he said, will be the backbone of the post-Iraq military, but its equipment is woefully outdated and overused, a problem that could be fixed with around $20 billion for new planes.

Dunn appeared on the panel in place of an active duty Air Force officer, because Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted that an active duty officer not appear and has reprimanded officers in the past for speaking publicly about their personal and professional opinions.

Looking to the future, the emphasis on developing the latest, most expensive military technology is shifting attention away from the real threats facing the United States. “Baseline military spending is out of sync with the threats,” said Richard Betts of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy at Columbia University. “We haven’t learned that the Cold War is over.”

The collapse of political discipline on defense spending in the last 11 years has left the military ill-prepared to face the challenges of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. These two challenges, said Retired Marine Colonel T.X. Hammes, will likely supplant state versus state warfare as the primary threats to United States security and the global world order.

“We’re going to have to reset the force” to deal with the evolution of warfare, said Hammes, and that will entail creating a balanced force with the capability to mobilize quickly. He objected to expanding military personnel capability without also assuring that the quality of the force remains high. Scales, meanwhile, emphasized that the Defense Department needs to put more money into improving its people on the ground, whether that happens by funding more special operations forces, as Korb and Bergmann suggest, or by paying people what they’re worth to maintain a quality force.

The bottom line in reforming and improving the military lies in both the budget and the culture. The case for more money in areas currently shortchanged by the Pentagon budget and for changing the technology-first mindset and politically driven priorities of the Pentagon was clear.

Said Dunn, the retired Air Force Lt. Gen. asked to step in for an active duty officer, “If our country accepts political leaders muzzling military ones, we’ll get the military advice we deserve.”

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