The Future of the U.S. Military

The Future of the U.S. Military

While the American public focuses on bringing U.S. forces home from Iraq and Afghanistan, defense planners in Washington consider what to do with them when they get back.

November 6, 2007 1:00 pm (EST)

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Six years after 9/11, the U.S. military is at a crossroads. Stressed under the dual weight of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s human and mechanized resources hover near the breaking point. Ground forces are especially strained. The U.S. Army, responsible for the bulk of operations in the Middle East, forecasts officer deficits and equipment shortages as the conflicts drag on. The U.S. Marine Corps, too, strains to maintain adequate levels of readiness as equipment losses pile up. The air force and navy, less active than their ground-fighting counterparts, nonetheless suffer as well from the longest period of conflict since Vietnam. All face budget cuts that could threaten their long-term capabilities.

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Much has been made about how and when the U.S. military will eventually extract itself from these wars. Less attention, however, has been paid to what the military might look like when it returns. Mounting costs—both human and budgetary—threaten to derail force modernization projects that service leaders deem necessary. And fueling the debate of how to pay for defense is a burgeoning disagreement over how the nation’s future threats will manifest themselves.


By all accounts, active and reserve components of the U.S. Army bear the brunt of current U.S. wars. As of September 2007, roughly 122,000 army soldiers were in Iraq, with an additional 18,000 serving alongside NATO forces in Afghanistan. As many as 1.4 million active and reserve personnel have participated in combat operations since September 11, 2001. In April 2007, the Pentagon placed further strains on the army, extending tours to fifteen months from the traditional twelve. The move, called "prudent management" by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, came as a growing number of soldiers were opting not to reenlist. To counter forecasted attrition the service plans to add 65,000 soldiers to its ranks by 2010, and increase time between deployments to two years from one year. The army has also offered cash bonuses to sway young officers to stay in uniform.

The health of returning soldiers also is becoming a major long-term concern. The Congressional Budget Office reports nearly 35,000 troops injured or killed in combat since 2001, and health care costs over the next decade could hit $9 billion.

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Personnel issues are not the army’s only challenge, however. The Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Lexington Institute reported (PDF) in April 2006 that equipment strains—including high utilization and the harsh Iraqi environment—have reduced readiness of some units. The M1 Abrams tank, for example, is being worked six times harder than during peacetime, while trucks are approaching ten times the usage. The army estimates $13.5 billion is needed to pay for repair of war-torn equipment.

To meet its long-term challenges, the army is overhauling its organizational structure, creating "modular" brigade combat teams intended to offer more flexibility in combat. But as this Backgrounder explains, some experts question whether the reforms will make the army less effective in counterinsurgency operations.

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Marine Corps

Personnel and equipment stresses have saddled the U.S. Marine Corps as well. In August 2006 CAP and Lexington reported that the marines, like the army, teetered on an equipment crisis that threatened future missions. Nearly half of the service’s armored vehicles and troop carriers have been deployed to Iraq, the organizations found, with much of it damaged and overused. Forty percent of the marines’ pre-positioned gear stored in Europe—primarily ground vehicles and ordnance—has been depleted, limiting the service’s ability to respond to situations outside of Iraq.

Some military officials have called the equipment shortfalls part of a "death spiral" threatening (WashPost) the services’ strategic reserves; repair and replacement estimates top $17 billion. Worsening the marines’ plight, the V-22 Osprey, an aircraft the service designed its tactical operational doctrine around, has been saddled with decades of safety and technical problems. The Osprey can take off vertically and then fly like a conventional plane, but engine failures and restrictions on its flight maneuvers may make it far less useful (TIME) in combat situations.

Currently there are about 25,000 marines in Iraq. Like the army, the marines plan to add personnel and reduce time between deployments in coming years. There are no major marine units in Afghanistan.


While the U.S. Navy’s post-9/11 role has been overshadowed by the army and marines, the nation’s sea service has not been absent from the fight. Since conducting the Iraq war’s initial missile strikes, the navy has participated in the ground war by providing medical and construction support to marine units; guarding detention facilities in Iraq; and sending elite SEAL teams after terrorists worldwide. In October 2007 a SEAL became the first navy service member to earn the Medal of Honor for combat heroism in thirty-five years. In April 2007 there were seventeen thousand sailors at sea in support of Iraq and Afghanistan missions.

To increase its long-term viability, the navy is redefining its global war-fighting capabilities. Symbolic is a so-called green-water navy, anchored by a new line of small littoral combat ships that are able to work in shallow water. Cost overruns, however, have led to problems. More broadly, plans are underway to expand partnerships with allied navies, conduct humanitarian missions, and protect shipping routes.

Air Force

Similar challenges face the U.S. Air Force. Since 1991 the service has been engaged in patrolling no-fly zones in Iraq. Today it conducts traditional combat support and "non-traditional" missions—from convoy escorts to infrastructure protection. The air force is also taking the lead on cyber warfare. In early 2007 the service had thirty thousand service members deployed in U.S. Central Command’s region of responsibility, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet the wars have taken their toll on aviators and their equipment. According to the 2007 U.S. Air Force Posture Statement, a "significant number" of the force’s six thousand aircraft are operating under flight restrictions due to age and overuse; the average bomber is over thirty years old. "As a result," the service concluded (PDF), "the air force’s ability to meet the combat requirements of tomorrow is in question."

That frustration is evidenced by slowed development of new stealth aircraft. Testing of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, has been delayed by electrical malfunctions, and critics contend the F-22 Raptor, another stealth jet, is sluggish and heavy (PDF).

The Future of Warfare

Equally uncertain is the type of conflicts in which the Pentagon will be called upon to fight. For now the focus is on small wars, or so-called counterinsurgency campaigns. Considered the "fourth generation" of warfare—behind line and column, machine gun and artillery, and tank and aircraft—these fights require large numbers of soldiers on the ground to interact with the populace and challenge loose coalition of fighters. Defense Secretary Gates has said he envisions a future where unconventional conflicts are "the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield."

Yet some military planners say the United States will need a comprehensive spectrum of capabilities to counter traditional threats. Others worry the Pentagon will revert to focusing on "conventional" warfare after Iraq and Afghanistan—much like it did after Vietnam. Admiral Michael G. Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has another concern. He worries (PDF) the focus on Iraq might lead the nation to "lapse into complacency about our still-mounting global responsibilities."

The debate is especially lively within the army. Gates has said the army should improve its ability to train foreign militaries, and be prepared to rebuild infrastructure and revive public services. That vision, however, runs counter to one advocated by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who called for a smaller army with technical units that steered clear of nation building.

Paying the Price

Beyond questions of focus and preparedness looms a larger budgetary battle. Pentagon planners are already circling the wagons for the 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review, which will serve as a spending template for the next presidential administration.

Army planners envision a world full of counterinsurgency campaigns—where boots on the ground would be vital. The more boots, the army argues, the greater portion of the budget the army deserves. Navy and air force officials, on the other hand, might hope for a return to the old world order of conventional warfare, where traditional nation-states like China or Russia pose the greatest risk to security.

"The big question for the future is what you think the long-term threats are," says Steven M. Kosiak, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent research institute. "The army is probably not going to be particularly relevant if China is your big concern."

The Defense Department’s current baseline budget of $483 billion—nearly double what it was during the mid-1990s—accounts for roughly 3.9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), historically low compared with past wars, though supplemental spending bills inflate current figures. During Vietnam, for example, spending peaked at 9.5 percent of GDP, according to the Pentagon. But some predict domestic pressures will force politicians to cut spending when current conflicts wanes, as happened after the Cold War.

Aware of the potential for budget spats, military leaders have fired preemptive shots. Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne said in September 2007 his service would need an additional $100 billion (Defense News) over the five years to remain adept at future challenges. For the navy, the funding debate may hinge on the service’s operational value. An April 2007 Congressional Research Service report (PDF) puts the question to Congress this way: "Are the Navy’s actions partly motivated by concerns about its perceived relevance to current threats, or by a desire to secure a portion of ...funding?"

Admiral Mullen, too, has pressed Congress to sustain current high levels in coming years. In October 2007 he told the International Herald Tribune that taxpayers must be prepared to "devote more resources to national security," in part to repair equipment and rebuild the forces.

Not everyone agrees. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Richard K. Betts says current defense funding is already wildly out of touch with reality. "The baseline peacetime defense structure is still very large compared to the Cold War," Betts says, "and we have no threats at all comparable to what we were worried abut during the Cold War."


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