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Panetta's Frenzied Rhetoric Is Not Stopping the Decay of U.S. Forces

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Before Tuesday this week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had been sprinkling Washington D.C. with words like "doomsday mechanism," "catastrophic," and "shooting ourselves in the head" to describe any cuts in the Pentagon's budget beyond the $450 billion over 10 years (overall a 4 percent reduction) he and President Obama have already committed to. Panetta had set a new standard for overheated rhetoric to defend the Pentagon's budget.

But on Tuesday, a new Leon Panetta was rolled out in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Gone were the apocalyptic lamentations proclaiming a return to 2007 levels of Pentagon spending to be the end of budget life as we know it -- even if it is also true that 2007 was a post-World War II high at the time, $73 billion higher than spending in 2000, and $38 billion above average annual spending during the Cold War.

The new, more pensive Panetta called for "the thoughtful debate the entire country needs to have on how to sustain the nation's strength... in a time of growing fiscal constraint." He even eschewed his Hectoring at Congress to go find cuts in entitlement spending to permit an unperturbed Pentagon budget. He used the "catastrophic damage" phrasing just once, and it was buried in the back of the speech.

The restraint and call for thoughtfulness didn't last long. Less than 24 hours later, he was back at it, making an analogy that advocates of deeper cuts were the Nazis at Bastogne, Belgium in World War II and he was the storied U.S. commander there who told them "Nuts" when they demanded surrender. A day later at the House Armed Services Committee, the overblown rhetoric was repeated, over and over again.

The Wilson Center speech also attempted to take the intellectual high road by putting budget problems in a strategic context and to prioritize solutions. However, the substance of these remarks was as waiflike as his transient attempt at rhetorical restraint.

He started with strategic pabulum straight from the bowels of the Pentagon bureaucracy. He read off a litany of threats: Iraq, Afghanistan, al Qaeda, nuclear proliferation, "rising powers" in the "Asia-Pacific region" (that would be China) and cyber security without even acknowledging the usual criticism such laundry lists attract. When virtually the same catalog of threats was offered in DoD's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, it was widely panned as having no identifiable strategic framework or priorities. As one more insightful critic, Franklin C. Spinney, pointed out, such lists -- and the conventional wisdom critique of them -- do not even recognize the Pentagon's fundamental problems. (Find his analysis in the introduction to the anthology "The Pentagon Labyrinth.")

One way to understand those more fundamental problems is to recognize some popular mythology in Panetta's speech. He asserted "the American military today is without question the finest fighting force that has ever existed." It is a phraseology commonly used by American politicians of both political parties to profess their support for the troops and to pretend they met their Constitutional obligation to "raise and support Armies" and to "provide and maintain a Navy".

They have done no such thing.

Panetta's "finest" U.S. Navy "that has ever existed" has shrunk from 316 battleforce ships in 2001 to 287 in 2011, a decline of 10 percent. It is not a smaller, newer fleet; it is a smaller, older fleet -- about four years older per ship, on average, than it was in 2001. Also, for the past year the press has been constantly reporting on severe maintenance and readiness problems throughout the fleet.

Panetta's best ever Air Force declined from 142 fighter and bomber squadrons to 72 during the same 2001-2012 period, a decline of 49 percent, and the inventory has increased to an all-time high average for aircraft age: 23 years. Fighter pilot air training hours today are one-half of what they were in the 1970s, an era not touted for high readiness.

The Army's brigade combat teams did grow from 44 to 45. But major Army equipment inventories are mostly older, and in 2006, the House Armed Services Committee leaked a memo documenting historic lows in the readiness of active Army units in the U.S. The analysis has not been publicly updated; we should worry that it has gotten worse, not better.

We got this smaller, older, less ready force not because of less money but because of more. In addition to the $1.3 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Congress and Presidents Bush and Obama added another $1 trillion to the "base" (non-war) parts of the defense budget.

Panetta's empty "finest ever" rhetoric does not even stand up to a comparison of U.S. armed forces to themselves ten years ago. The pretense that we outmatch the rest of the world (as much as we outspend it) relies on an absence of meaningful analysis, certainly none that Panetta has presented, and it creates the false impression that we can do anything, anywhere, to anyone without paying a penalty -- an arrogance we paid heavily for in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If an extra trillion dollars in the last ten years meant a decaying defense force, how does Panetta say he is going to prevent a hollowing out of our forces at the modestly lower budget levels he says he can live with?

His priorities for solutions started well enough. To his credit, his speech's first budget cutting priority was "ruthlessly pursuing efficiencies and streamlining efforts designed to eliminate overhead infrastructure, waste and duplication," and Thursday at the House Armed Services Committee he said he would accelerate the Pentagon's deadline for its meeting the Constitutional requirement -- never before complied with -- that it account for the trillions of dollars it has been spending. If actually done, he will permit himself and future decision makers to begin to understand how much spending is waste, duplication, abuse, excess overhead, doctored contractor spending records and much, much more.

However, the audit Panetta says he wants to achieve is too modest to provide the comprehensive and detailed data he will really need to identify the overhead, waste and duplication he says he wants to ferret out. When you scratch his words, they seem a little hollow.

Then, Panetta's budget cutting priorities went completely off the tracks. His number two priority -- in agreement with much of today's conventional wisdom -- is to cut personnel costs. The number three priority is to cut force structure, which really means taking people out of the force, thereby reducing combat units and their support. Panetta's last place to cut is "modernization," meaning hardware.

He put a lot of rhetoric around his solicitude for the troops both at the Wilson Center and later at the House Armed Services Committee, but it is beginning to emerge that his real budget priorities are to cut people first and hardware last.

It is no doubt true that pay and benefits costs are out of control in the Pentagon, but the same is true of hardware -- in spades. The last GAO measure of hardware cost growth put it at $300 billion.

To exploit people to protect hardware flies in the face of what should have been the hard-won lessons of the lost war in Vietnam, our victory against Saddam Hussein in 1991, and the advice of one of America's greatest strategic thinkers.

In Vietnam, we had a huge technological advantage over our enemy, and yet we lost -- a lesson many seem to have forgotten in Afghanistan. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the American commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, asserted that if we had swapped equipment with the Iraqis, the lopsided result would not have changed. These lessons are confirmed by one of the most insightful, if incompletely acknowledged, American strategists, Col. John R. Boyd, who warned "Machines don't fight wars; people do, and they use their minds."

Putting machines before people forebodes an ugly time for American defenses in coming years. If hardware programs like the unaffordable, underperforming F-35 survive significantly intact, and people in the form of auditors and infantrymen are the bill payers, the negative trends of the past decade will accelerate even more, and we will have a true disaster on our hands. If it occurs, the architect will be Secretary Panetta and his strategy to use extreme rhetoric to protect the defense budget and to exploit people to protect hardware.

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