Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division descend to the ground after jumping out of a C-17 Globemaster III during a joint exercise at Ft. Bragg, N.C., in 2011. Some national security experts believe saving money by lowering readiness is a better alternative than large-scale cuts to the force. (Airman 1st Class James Richardson / Air Force)
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Maybe "hollowing out the force" is not such a bad idea after all.
Dozens of national security experts are quietly backing proposals to save money in the defense budget by reducing "current readiness," according to a new report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an influential Washington think tank.
That would mean keeping more troops in uniform but cutting back on things like tank miles, flying hours, ship steaming days and the large-scale exercises that keep troops on their toes and ready to fight on short notice.
That view is starkly at odds with the Pentagon's top brass and their public statements. The new national security strategy unveiled earlier this year hinges on the belief that the military is better off maintaining a high-level of readiness, even if that means cutting troops and making the overall force smaller. Failing to maintain readiness amounts to "hollowing out the force," according to both Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
The new report stems from a CSBA-sponsored research project earlier this year that brought together nearly 100 defense experts to conduct a war-game-style exercise examining the Pentagon's budget challenges over the next decade.
The think tank invited active and retired military officers, congressional staffers from parties, academics and private-sector experts to conduct a series of day-long drills that tackled the Defense Department's toughest choices on the horizon.
Dubbed "Strategic Choices: Navigating Austerity," the project divided the experts into seven teams and asked each one to develop a long-term spending strategy for the next decade.
The budget constraints included chopping an additional $500 billion from the Pentagon's current projected spending plan over 10 years, roughly similar to the long-term impact of the so-called sequestration law that Congress is currently wrestling with. That law, which will take effect Jan. 1 unless Congress acts to change it, will impose about $500 billion in automatic spending cuts across the Defense Department spread out across the next 10 years.
The major difference between today's sequestration law and the budget exercise CSBA conducted was that the latter allowed cuts to be targeted strategically, imposing steeper reductions in some places in order to preserve spending in others. The sequestration law requires that all cuts be imposed equally across all of the Pentagon's budget accounts.
One surprising result: Five of the seven teams proposed saving money by scaling back current readiness.
"We have heard [concerns] from a lot of people …that there are too many resources going into current readiness programs today," said Mark Gunzinger, a retired Air Force colonel and Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow at CSBA.
"We need to balance current readiness against future readiness. You might be able to say ‘Great, we have the best trained and equipped and prepared force [today],' but is it going to be ready 10 years from now if you maintain these levels of readiness, given the budget cuts? Or taking a little bit of risk in readiness today, will that give you a better force in the future?" said Gunzinger a co-author of the report.
He acknowledged that reducing current readiness can be a political difficult position. "Doing that might open you up to some criticism — ‘Oh they're hollowing out the force,' " Gunzinger said.
The report's other author, CSBA budget expert Todd Harrison, noted that such views run counter to the official national defense strategy unveiled earlier this year.
"DoD, very explicitly in their 2012 strategic guidance, say that we are going to preserve readiness even if it means getting smaller, even if it means cutting force structure," Harrison said.
"Fine — just recognize that is a real strategic choice. The other choice — the opposite choice — is we can say, ‘All right, we feel fairly secure in our level of readiness right now for the near term, we are wiling to take some risk in near term readiness in order to buy down risk in the long run," Harrison said.
"The teams that cut readiness … did it reluctantly," he said. "But if you watched their discussions, they would go in there and …when they looked at what a 5, 10 or 15 percent cut in readiness freed up in terms of budgetary resources, that was when you saw them go, ‘Gosh, I don't want to do it, but, man, think of the things I could buy with that money.' "
The report said many of the experts who wanted to cut readiness wanted to use that money to expand several specific capabilities such as special operations, cyber war capabilities, long-range surveillance and strike capabilities and unmanned, undersea systems.
"This is just a near-term reduction in readiness because …you cut readiness today, you will have reduced readiness for the next few years but you can bring it back over time," Harrison said, acknowledging that "it's not an easy choice — none of these are easy choices.
The defense experts who participated in the exercise did so on the condition of anonymity.