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Think Small

Looking for the "vision thing" at the Association of the U.S. Army convention.

9:00 AM, Oct 22, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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Every October, the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) holds its annual convention in Washington, DC, at which the Army's leadership outlines its plans and vision for the Army, and the Army's suppliers of everything from tanks and artillery to boots and beer nuts put their latest wares on display. This year's convention took place October 5 to 7 at the cavernous Washington Convention Center, at which I spent three days taking in the sights and sounds and getting very sore feet. What follows is a summary of my impressions of the Convention and its implications for the Army in the Age of Obama.

Because of the long lead times between conception and fielding (on the average, some 20 years for a major weapon system), there can be a real sense of déjà vu about these confabulations--minor changes to the displays, some new brochures, maybe an updated progress report--you can get a real feeling that you've seen it all before. This is particularly true whenever the defense budget is falling: new program starts are few and far between, so contractors focus on upgrades to existing systems (both funded and unfunded), new concepts (unfunded), and subsystems (particularly command, control, communications and intelligence, or C3I).

For the past several years, the convention has been marked by the absence of any new major weapon systems. No new tanks, no new armored vehicles, no new artillery systems, no new aircraft or helicopters. The focus has shifted to low intensity warfighting in order to meet the needs of soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no consideration of potential high intensity conflicts or of retaining U.S. supremacy (which is the reason we have to fight so many low intensity conflicts--who wants to be the next Saddam Hussein?). On the other hand, there was very little consideration of what the Army's role in support of U.S. grand strategy is likely to be for the next half century.

Rather, the focus is on the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review and its budget implications. As Edward Luttwak famously observed, the U.S. doesn't really have a defense strategy, it has a budget process. The budget process is the means by which a consensus emerges on defense priorities, strongly influenced by the priorities and self-interests of the armed services, Congressional delegations and the defense industries. Sometimes this consensus is congruent with strategic requirements, and at other times, there is an horrendous disconnect, which leaves the military scrambling to find solutions to operational requirements it never really considered before (e.g., the need to shift from conventional to counter-insurgency warfare in the 2004-2006 timeframe). But, crisis over, the services tend to go back to what they see as their core roles and missions: the Army wants to do high-intensity combined arms operations ("real war"); the Air Force wants to do air superiority and strike/interdiction; the Navy wants to do blue water sea control.

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) was mandated by Congress in the 1990s to reconcile the U.S. National Security Strategy (which provides high level strategic guidance and objectives) with the National Defense Strategy (the implementation of national strategic objectives by the military) and the Program Objective Memorandum (POM), the military's five year defense acquisition plan. In a perfect world, the National Security Strategy--based on a firm political consensus about U.S. national interests and rigorous analysis of short-, medium-, and long-term threats--would shape the roles and missions of the military services as expressed in the National Defense Strategy, which in turn would influence choices in the POM. The reality is rather different, and the QDR usually degenerates into what insiders call a "salami slicing exercise": here is the salami, how big a piece will each service get? When the budget is growing, the fight is over getting a bigger piece of the sausage; when it is shrinking, the fight is to minimize one's own cuts at the expense of others.