ROBERT GATES, the secretary of defense, has proposed a budget overhaul that will go a long way toward improving our national security, but more can be done to meet his long-term goal: creating the right military for the 21st century.
Not since Henry Stimson’s tenure from 1940 to ’45 has a defense secretary been faced to the same degree with simultaneously fighting a war and carrying out far-reaching reforms. Yet there are three major changes Mr. Gates should add to his agenda, and they deserve President Obama’s support.
By Paul Kane
The New york Times
First, the Air Force should be eliminated, and its personnel and equipment integrated into the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Second, the archaic “up or out” military promotion system should be scrapped in favor of a plan that treats service members as real assets. Third, the United States needs a national service program for all young men and women, without any deferments, to increase the quality and size of the pool from which troops are drawn.
At the moment, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps are at war, but the Air Force is not. This is not the fault of the Air Force: it is simply not structured to be in the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Army, Marine and Navy personnel have borne the brunt of deployments, commonly serving multiple tours, the Air Force’s operational tempo remains comparatively comfortable. In 2007, only about 5 percent of the troops in Iraq were airmen.
Yes, air power is a critical component of America’s arsenal. But the Army, Navy and Marines already maintain air wings within their expeditionary units. The Air Force is increasingly a redundancy in structure and spending.
War is no longer made up of set-piece battles between huge armies confronting each other with tanks and airplanes. As we move toward a greater emphasis on rapid-response troops, the Army has tightened its physical fitness regime and the Marine Corps has introduced a physically grueling Combat Fitness Test for all members. Yet an Air Force study last year found that more than half of airmen and women were overweight and 12 percent were obese.
Next, the current military personnel system is a peacetime bureaucratic construct that serves neither national security nor those who wear the uniform. Congress sets the level of manpower for each military service. Within this constraint, military planners have to decide how many riflemen, mechanics, cooks, medics, pilots and such there should be within the military’s job types, known as Military Occupational Specialties. Then the Pentagon has to decide how many people will be retained in the ranks or promoted.
The result is an “up or out” system that demands service members move up the ladder simply to stay in the military. Any soldier passed over for promotion twice must leave or retire.
Treating service members like so many widgets — in particular, the enlisted men and women who make up 85 percent of the ranks — is arbitrary and bad management. I have seen many fit, experienced officers and enlisted Marines arbitrarily forced out because there were only so many slots into which they could be promoted.
The military should develop a new accounting and personnel system that tracks the cost of developing its human capital and tallies each service member as an investment with a fixed value based on his education, training, experience and performance. This would reflect the departure of a valued service member as an asset lost, not a cost cut. Why are fit men and women who have served in combat, a human experience that a million dollars can’t buy, being pushed out instead of retained for 15, 20, 30 years?
Last, Mr. Gates should urge President Obama to confer with Congress and introduce national service at age 18 for all Americans. Under such a system, young people from all classes and backgrounds would either serve in the military or do other essential work like intelligence assessment, conservation, antipoverty projects, educational tutoring, firefighting, policing, border security, disaster relief or care for the elderly. The best qualified would be assigned to the military.
The 1.6 million Americans who have served in the current wars represent less than one percent of all citizens. We need to spread the risk and burden of fighting our wars. If more of our national leaders had been in uniform, or knew they might have children at risk in war, their decisions during military confrontations might be better. And this is not just about the struggle against terrorism: would New Orleans reconstruction have lagged so long if we had had a national service program in natural-disaster recovery?
President Obama has the political capital to make these critical changes. Given the urgency of war and money available under the economic recovery plan, now may be our best chance for decades to truly modernize America’s defenses.