How to fix the U.S. military.

Repairing some of the worst Bush administration screw-ups.
March 31 2008 7:12 AM

The Military

How to fix the U.S. military.

With President Bush's approval rating hovering in the 30s, just about everyone has an opinion on what George W. has done wrong in the past seven years. But not everyone can explain what the next president must do to fix it. So we've called in some experts to tell us. Fixing It is a 10-part series to be published over the course of this week with contributions from seom of our favorite writers, offering detailed policy prescriptions for the next president, whoever that may be, on how to quickly undo some of the damage. One of our contributors wryly describes the series as "News You Can Use. If You Happen To Be President." Read the other entries here.

Fred Kaplan chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Illustration by Jason Raish. Click image to expand.

The next president will inherit a military in strange shambles. Its soldiers fight extremely well, but its army is on the brink of breaking. Its budget is enormous, but most of the money goes to weapons that have little to do with promoting real security. Some official documents detail the problems and outline solutions, but too often they aren't translated into action. The principal task, therefore, is to do just that—in the face of enormous bureaucratic resistance.

Fix-it List: Military

• Overhaul the budget. If you'd awakened from a 20-year-long slumber and glanced at the current defense budget, you'd think the Cold War were still raging. President Bush's budget request for the next fiscal year—totaling $541 billion, not including money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—is dominated by aircraft carriers, submarines, fighter jets, and ultratech combat fighting vehicles, i.e., the sorts of weapons you'd need to fight the sort of comparably armed superpower that no longer exists. Members of Congress impose no discipline on this extravagance—they scarcely even ask whether all these programs are necessary—for fear of accusations that they're weak on defense or soft on terror.

Yet there is a way out of this paralysis. In each of the past few years, Bush has put all the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, and "the longer war on terror" into a separate "supplemental" to the budget. The next president should ask the defense secretary to do two things: First, make sure everything in the supplemental really is needed for those wars (tens of billions of dollars' worth don't appear to be); second, announce that everything else is back on the table. There hasn't been a "bottom-up review" of the defense budget—a systematic look at the requirements of security—since the end of the Cold War. It's time to conduct one, seriously. We don't have the money to stay this course.

• Rejigger the military services. One obstacle to rational military planning is that, for the past 40 years, by unspoken agreement, the defense budget has been evenly split among the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. To do otherwise—to announce, for instance, that the Army needs 20 percent more money and the other services could each get by with 10 percent less—would set off a firestorm inside the Pentagon and wreck the interservice cooperation that has marked U.S. military campaigns in recent years. So, over the next several years, certain missions should be played up, others played down. Because the current Air Force is dominated by fighter pilots, the Air Force's No. 1 priority today is to build as many F-22 fighter planes as it can, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars—even though they would play no role in any foreseeable war over the next two decades. One way to wean them off such weapons is to build up (and put more money into) other Air Force missions—for example, cargo-transport planes (to carry ground forces and their gear), close-air-support planes (to fire shells or drop bombs in support of troops on the ground), or to provide security for bases (many Air Force personnel have been reassigned to do just that). The defense secretary could announce that the service's continued share of the budget depends on boosting the importance of those missions. (This is, bureaucratically, a long-term project.)

• Fix the Army. The Army is (barely) meeting its recruitment goals by lowering standards and dishing out large bonuses. And, despite paying equally large rewards for retention bonuses, it is now hemorrhaging talented junior and midgrade officers. The Iraq war, with its grueling and never-ending deployment schedules, is the main reason for this. (Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently that Army recruiters face a serious challenge as long as signing up means getting assigned to Iraq.) But Iraq is only part of the problem—and thus getting out of Iraq will provide only a part of the solution.

• Invest in people. When the draft ended in 1973, the Army chiefs shifted incentives from veterans' benefits (such as the GI Bill) to enlistment bonuses. This approach has now gone too far, resulting in a "transactional" mindset that hurts morale and warps the military's credo of service. The next defense secretary should shift back to the old approach: Fund civilian education for enlisted personnel and officers; provide leave for them to pursue bachelors' and graduate degrees between deployments; give educational grants to family members as compensation for the hardships of repeated moves; invest in immersive training in foreign languages and cultures. These things will produce better officers, as well as happier ones.


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