Historically, the prospect of a belt-tightening defense budget has fueled interservice squabbles. Such internecine conflict has proved uniformly nonproductive. When the service staffs fight each other for a bigger share of a smaller budgetary pie, it usually ends up exacerbating irresponsible funding cuts, with no service emerging better off than before the infighting began, and an overall erosion of essential military capabilities.
In an age when competition and warfare span every physical dimension, creating more interdependencies among the services than ever, the proposal to beggar one service to save another is simply irresponsible.
To start, interservice fratricide undermines the trust and confidence of the joint force. In the past, when Congress ignored growing threats to cash “peace dividends,” cooperation between the Army and Navy sunk to a nadir. When war came again, they relearned the lessons of jointness at tremendous expense—military failure and excessive body bags.
This was nowhere more apparent than in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The Navy found that, even in a big ocean war, it desperately needed the Army to build the infrastructure to support the counteroffensive against Japan, secure air supremacy and fight for the strategic locations in the second island chain that made the final vengeance of Pearl Harbor possible.
Today, the second island chain is again the strategic focus in the Pacific. When China looks at the United States’ capability to defend its interests in the Indo-Pacific, it is not deterred by an Army or a Navy, or an Air Force or a Space Force, but by the American flag and the sum total of all the military capability the flag represents.
In contrast to the interservice distrust that marked the prelude to World War II, Air Force and Army cooperation in the 1980s was transformative. The emergence of AirLand Battle doctrine in cooperation with the Air Force and multiple joint initiatives not only served as the foundation for modern joint concepts and capabilities, but they also fueled the global resurgence of American military might.
Strong interservice cooperation makes a vital contribution to the deterrent value of U.S. forces worldwide, and today, the services need one another more than ever. Trying to raid each other’s budgets to secure their own is cancerous behavior that will erode the joint force.
Interservice rivalry also does not facilitate tough, rational choices, as one might presume. Rather, the squabbling among the services contributes to politically driven force posture decisions that are focused primarily on justifying and shoehorning the military into a smaller footprint.
The standard formula for fiscally driven defense reductions is to conduct a “defense review.” These usually devolve into political exercises to justify cuts without appearing to incur massive strategic risks, papering over having less capability against greater threats with process, reassuring verbiage and a touch of fairy dust. During the Kabuki dances, politicians use the services’ attacks on one another as a menu of justifications to make the cuts, from which they order up the most politically viable, not the most rational or prudent, choices.
After the Cold War, for example, the Pentagon went through successive blitzkriegs of defense reviews, starting with the Base Force analysis in 1990. The reviews and budget cuts continued until the politicians finally realized that they had so seriously crippled the Army that it could not deploy forces in response to the Kosovo crisis in 1999. Only then did the politicians recognize that the force was on the verge of becoming “hollow,” much as it was after the chronic underfunding that followed the war in Vietnam. Reality, not political force planning, dictated when enough cutting was enough.
Clear Strategic Need
In contrast, when Ronald Reagan was swept into office in 1980, the new president instituted an unprecedented peacetime force buildup. He accomplished that, in part, because there was a clear strategic need to rebuild the military. In addition, Reagan had strong bipartisan support that was interested more in determining legitimate defense needs than hitting a predetermined price tag. Indeed, before the election, two senatorial working groups—one Republican and one Democrat— were making the case for a military buildup that would improve readiness and modernize the force across the board.
Today, great-power competition with Russia, China and more provides an equally compelling rationale for a strong national defense that can protect U.S. vital interests. The U.S. remains a global power with global interests and global responsibilities.
For over a half-decade, the Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength has provided a nonpartisan annual assessment of defense capabilities based on consistent, objective criteria. The most recent iteration concludes that, despite some rebuilding during the previous administration, the global capabilities of today’s U.S. armed forces are only marginally adequate to the task at hand.
As Russia and China continue to increase their military spending and modernization, the balance will continue to shift in their favor absent adequate investment in U.S capabilities.
The plain truth is all the services need a significant and sustained boost in budget to improve readiness, modernization and numbers. That’s just reality.
Finally, arguing for single-service or silver bullet solutions to strategic competition puts the U.S. more at risk of strategic failure. Global great-power competition is complex and dynamic. Prevailing in this environment, avoiding mistakes that lead to escalating conflict or misperception on the part of adversaries requires a robust mix of conventional and strategic deterrence.
In the runup to both world wars, the U.S. military offered no real strategic deterrent value. In both prewar eras, the U.S. focused on hemispheric defense, with no real capacity to use military power proactively to deter conflict. In the end, the U.S. became embroiled in two cataclysmic wars because it lacked the means to deter them.
In contrast, Reagan used a strategy of “peace through strength” not as a precursor to armed conflict but to deter and pressure the Soviet Union to eschew war. He succeeded by demonstrating the capacity to deter at both the conventional and strategic levels.
Like a high-flying performer, the more dangerous the act, the bigger the safety net it requires to reduce risk to a manageable level. No single service can provide the depth of strategic and conventional dissuasion necessary to ensure effective deterrence in the current era of great-power competition.
The services are now entering a period of great danger, as the Pentagon faces potentially flat budgets. President Joe Biden’s “skinny budget” suggests defense spending increases so small that they do not even keep up with inflation. Early speculation is that Army modernization plans could be a heavy bill-payer for the Pentagon’s reduced buying power. But if that should happen, all the services would suffer, as Biden’s budget would undermine the long-term capacity of the military to project power in all key strategic theaters.
Rally for Adequate Funding
The services should rally around the need for adequate funding for the joint force. There is bipartisan support for sustained growth in the defense budget. Further, global conditions will demonstrate the continued importance of overseas presence, modernization and adequate readiness. The administration may well find it has to compromise with Congress to achieve its priorities, and providing adequate defense budgets could well be part of that final bargain.
The challenge for the services will be to deal with pressures for defense reviews and rationales that justify proposed plans for lower military top lines. After all, the military must respond to legal, competent civilian leadership, following the civilian leaders’ strategic guidance and priorities. To do anything else is injurious to appropriate civil-military relations.
That said, the services should not try to game the system and play politics themselves in the hopes they can better their budgets by undermining the needs, capabilities and requirements of other services. Rather, their assessments and advice should focus on stressing the importance of having the capability to compete and dominate in every domain, in every key strategic theater.
It is easy to be joint when there is money enough to go around. The real mark of military professionalism is to defend the importance of a robust joint force when the budget-cutters find the essential need for jointness in modern warfare an inconvenient truth.
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Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, U.S. Army retired, is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, where he directs the Washington, D.C., think tank’s research on matters of national security and foreign affairs.