To hear the Pentagon pundits tell it, Chicken Little was right. The sky is falling. Only in the current version of the fairy tale, it’s not raindrops heralding doom and gloom; it’s the evil, crushing effect of draconian budget cuts. Every time I see one brass-hat or another crying the fiscal poor-ass on Capitol Hill or in the press, I hear the ominous soundtrack from Jaws playing in my head. It’s like one of the witches from Macbeth has slipped into uniform and hit the talk show circuit to let everyone know something wicked this way comes.
If you’re a military bean-counter, I see the problem and share your concern. Lots of pricey new stuff is swirling toward the toilet and significant slugs of regular maintenance and operational money is dwindling if not disappearing altogether. Couple The Sequester (there’s that music again) with the drawdown from active combat in Afghanistan and its clear the blank-check need-it-get-it high times are gone. There’s no question in any reasonable mind that our military services are going to take significant hits in the procurement pipelines and the funds used to keep ’em flying, floating or fighting. Call me Little Mister Sunshine (or a communist, your choice) but I think there’s some good news for the military amid all the weeping and wailing. There’s a silver lining here if our uniformed leadership is willing to see it.
My own military experience taught me that adversity builds character and I view this whole budget crunch as more opportunity than Armageddon. What if our services just accepted the budget cuts as the inevitable result of post-war shifts in spending priorities and focused on what’s at hand rather than what’s wanted or even needed? They might just find there’s an excellent opportunity to re-think priorities, re-structure, get back to basics and build a leaner, meaner fighting force that’s facile, flexible and used to concepts like innovate, adapt and overcome. That may sound like heresy to services that are used to fleets of high-tech gear, steadily flowing supply pipelines and bulging warehouses but there is precedent and it wouldn’t hurt to review modern American military history for some guidance.
The primary argument against big Defense budget cuts is that we could wind up with a “hollow force” that doesn’t have the gear and isn’t sufficiently trained to fight when required to do so. Proponents of this position point to the skeletal forces caught with their trousers at half-mast when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor to kick-off American participation in World War II or the garrison-oriented, poorly-trained units that got clobbered and nearly annihilated during the early phases of war in Korea. Those are certainly cautionary tales and our military leadership understands the danger or they wouldn’t be making the hollow-force pitch in efforts to dodge the budget bombs. But it was a different world and a different American military in 1941 and 1950.
Military planners today have a much more sensitive finger on the international pulse and can do a much better job of shaping our force and keeping it ready for deployment against likely threats. We are today – and have been for the past two decades – an all-volunteer force that works with motivated people rather than reluctant, short-term draftees. We know how to train and fight wisely and efficiently but we’re out of practice. So, here’s the opportunity to get back in the habit of doing a dollar military job on a dime budget. It may require some serious upsetting of command bureaucracies, getting rid of a lot of civilian labor, brass hats and star-studded billets but we can do it.
Now is the time for our military leaders – especially those at the lower levels of the command structure where belt-tightening really pinches – to start thinking small. Let the big dogs at the high-level headquarters bark and howl at the politicians. Down in the ships, stations, squadrons and battalions there will be time to work on leadership, character-building and force-fed innovation if we forget about the high-dollar stuff and focus on the basics of military service. Here’s an opportunity for our senior leaders to set the example and actually lead rather than manage or direct. Here’s a chance for our junior military people to step up and demonstrate the talent they have in making things work. Now is the time to fix things rather than replace them. Now is the time to conduct all that low-level, low-tech basic training we’ve been ignoring for the past decade or so.
I was there when we had to do it after Vietnam and it was both difficult and refreshing. We did it with hard-headed commitment and relatively little money. We broomed the deadwood, focused on the realities, ignored wishful thinking and wound up with a strong, motivated and capable military force where the default setting was simply “make it work somehow.” Back in the post-Vietnam era one of my regimental commanders who had been through the cash crunches after World War II and Korea had a sign in his office that was originally posted on walls in London during the Battle of Britain. He’d point to it with a smile every time one of us arrived with our hair on fire about no money or a lack of something we thought we desperately needed. It read “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It was good advice then and it’s good advice now during the current military budget blitz.