Speaking of change, the current debt crisis could force drastic cuts in the Department of Defense budget, perhaps as high as 50 percent.
In the immediate post-Cold War era, DoD futurists envisioned a 25-year period of "strategic pause" before the nation faced a "major peer competitor" sometime between 2015 and 2020. In the 1990s, major candidates for peer-competitor status included China and a resurgent Russia. India and a nuclear-armed Iran were cast as lesser threats. In those heady days, terrorism was seen as a tactic and more the purview of law enforcement. The major emphasis was on being prepared for big wars against peer competitors—wars no world power can afford to lose. Preparing for those wars also satisfied each service's need to perpetuate itself in familiar ways wrapped around developing and acquiring high-tech weapon systems. Programs like "The Army After Next," "From the Sea," and "Air Force Next" addressed future strategic paradigms focused on parochial core strengths.
To be sure, there were cuts in defense spending during the 1990s. The size of the American military shrank. The Air Force, alone among the services, reorganized its force structure from one based on strategic deterrence to power projection. Cuts were "salami slices" that, for the most part, reduced but did not reform outmoded force structures.
And then, September 11, 2001 changed everything. In the immediate aftermath, the Bush administration made a major mistake by declaring a "War on Terror" rather than specifying the enemy as Al Qaeda, associated groups, and nations that support them. With a generic "terror" as the enemy, the war easily morphed from one into two wars, with Operation Iraqi Freedom launched in March 2003. Ten years later, the fighting in Iraq continues, and what was originally a campaign to root out and destroy al Qaeda in Afghanistan has become an endless struggle against the Taliban. This war has exhausted the American military, contributed to our national economic nightmare, and derailed critical thinking about the future.
This exhausted force is also outmoded. Cutting such a force by a quarter, much less half, would invite aggression by nations like Iran and North Korea. Keeping the current force at the status quo would be expensive and also leave the nation vulnerable to current threats and unable to cope with a rapidly growing Chinese threat.
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.