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Force Structure Needs Rethinking

As the Cold War was ending in 1991, the administration of George H.W. Bush proposed a major downsizing in our military’s force structure. The so-called “base force” was designed to reflect the interests of a nation at peace, following our victory in the Cold War. Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell proposed reducing the Army from 18 active and 10 reserve divisions to 12 active, six reserve and two cadre divisions. The Air Force would fall from 24 active and 11 reserve fighter wings to 15 active and 11 reserve fighter wings. The base force

reduced the Navy from 15 aircraft carriers and a total of 546 ships to 12 carriers and 451 ships. In 1990, our defense budget was roughly 5.8 percent of the gross national product.

Altogether, the base force was supposed to enable reductions in defense spending while preserving enough force structure to deal with virtually any threat. At the time, the Defense Department indicated that it was the minimal force needed to deal with the uncertainties of a post-Cold War world.

Yet, the ink was barely dry on that proposal before the incoming Clinton administration decided to downsize the military yet again. By 1997, when our final force structure took shape, two more Army divisions, and two more active fighter wings were cut. The Navy fell further to 329 ships with only 11 operational carrier battle groups. Defense spending fell to just 3.1 percent of gross national product. [IMGCAP(1)]

The slashing of U.S. forces went unnoticed by a nation expecting an extended period of stability, but military operations soon increased in tempo. American forces first deployed to Somalia to prevent famine, then to Bosnia to bring some semblance of peace to that troubled area.

During the 1990s, we further conducted a “peaceful” invasion of Haiti, conducted military operations against Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and Serbia, all while maintaining a significant presence in Germany and South Korea. In other words, for most of the 1990s, the demands made on the superb young men and women of our armed forces increased as their peacekeeping and presence missions expanded — all while the number of units available, and their readiness for those missions, fell.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. A country nominally at peace was thrust into a role leading a coalition of the willing against the threat of global terrorism. As important, the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks forced many to realize that the stakes for 21st century terrorists had changed.

They weren’t just seeking specific political ends, but sought to kill as many Americans as they could, as quickly as they could. We were forced to look at the links between terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, and rogue states in a new light. Old measures of deterrence, and old calculations about weapons of mass destruction, became moot.

So, in many ways, the president was forced to throw out the old assumptions about U.S. national security. Indeed, he acted quickly to lay out guidelines to increase the flexibility of our national security institutions.

The Defense Department, under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s leadership, crafted a Quadrennial Defense Review that shifted the focus of force planning from specific threats to a capabilities-based framework designed to deal with uncertainty. It further detailed the new framework in a Nuclear Posture Review that sought to decrease our reliance on nuclear weapons, while enhancing conventional strike and defensive capabilities in the strategic realm.

Finally, the Defense Department initiated a major reform of its management structures, many of which trace their heritage back to World War II, and some of which date to the turn of the previous century. In all of these activities, the House Armed Services Committee has been a strong and bipartisan partner. We have worked to provide the Defense Department with additional flexibility while protecting the quality work force upon which our security depends. Indeed, the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2004, which the House passed on May 22, marks significant progress in that direction.

There is a missing element, however. Our force structure remains much as it was in the 1990s, saddled by the assumptions that no longer are — if they ever were — accurate after Sept. 11.

We are not a nation at peace; we are not a nation secure behind two oceans; we are not a nation that can turn its back on areas of instability, in which terrorists have learned to thrive while nursing new and horrific capabilities. Instead, we are a nation in the midst of a global war, one that in many ways presents more daunting challenges than those faced during World War II.

American troops have already fought successful campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and are deployed with our allies in the Philippines, South America, the Middle East, Europe and the Asian mainland.

The growing demands that stretched our forces so thin during the 1990s have simply exploded. Yet, our currently deployed force structure has not kept pace. Overall defense spending is projected to be 3.4 percent of GNP in 2004; our Army hasn’t grown appreciably in response to the war on terror; and our Navy has actually continued to shrink. While the Air Force has looked to increase the number of active fighter wings, it has simultaneously planned to reduce the number of deployed strategic bombers capable of operating independent of forward bases, largely as a cost-saving measure.

At the same time, efforts to recover from the procurement holiday of the 1990s are less than satisfactory. The Armed Services Committee and House of Representatives are working against the trend by boosting investment in armor and bomber modernization, but much work remains to be done — and the demands for American force projection in a dangerous world compel us to look seriously at boosting the current force structure, now down to 10 Army divisions, 13 tactical air wings and 306 ships.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

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