At Pentagon: a new vision, but old budget

A blueprint for the military reflects 9/11 and Iraq, but a budget request is more traditional.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If poet Robert Frost had written the Pentagon's new road map, it might read: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took both.

This year was expected to be one of decision for the military. The limitations of today's force had been laid bare by the war in Iraq, where a lightning strike became a drawn-out occupation. If the Pentagon was to incorporate lessons learned from fighting the insurgency, priorities would have to be shifted and programs cut.

Yet with their new blueprint and budget for the future, both released last month, military leaders appear to be trying to split the difference - laying great stress on the need to adapt to irregular Iraq-style operations, while at the same time maintaining massive weapons systems that arose from a cold-war mind-set.

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To Pentagon officials, the past month is just one glimpse of changes taking place over years. To critics, however, it is evidence of the conflicted thinking of an immense bureaucracy split about how to handle the threats of a new security era.

"You have a document that sounds visionary and a budget request that is steady as she goes," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

In the budget and the new planning document, called the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), officials attempt to answer fundamental questions about the country's security: What are the threats against America likely to be both now and in the future, and how should the Pentagon prepare for them?

The answers, on some levels, are not surprising. Listed first among the threats facing the United States is terrorism. Indeed, the review has marked the rollout of "the Long War" - the administration's new moniker for the war on terror. In the past month, defense officials have repeatedly used the phrase to draw parallels between the cold war and the current conflict.

"Both were and are fundamentally ideological conflicts," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a briefing Tuesday. "Above all, both required perseverance by the American people and by their leadership."

It emphasizes a primary point of the new plan - that the US must steel and reorient itself for a new war with familiar stakes. To that end, the QDR recommends certain steps, from the addition of 30,000 special-operations troops to a call for improved intelligence-gathering and language skills throughout the military.

Budget would spare weapons systems

Yet the 2007 budget submitted to Congress last month is largely indistinguishable from those that preceded it. Every major weapon system - from two lines of stealth jet fighters to the next-generation naval destroyer - survived significant cuts.

Already, this is squeezing money tabbed for personnel. The 30,000 special operations troops, for example, will come at the expense of cuts in other areas of the force.

More generally, the big-ticket weapons systems threaten to eat more of the budget in coming years, and the decision not to trim them now continues a trend of prioritizing weapons above manpower, experts say. One Los Angeles Times columnist noted that the budget for language and cultural training is less than the cost of one F-35 jet.

That seems to run counter to the conventional wisdom of how to fight irregular wars. Yet there is a logic to the budget decisions: Just because the nation is involved in a low-tech war now doesn't mean it always will be, and the military must continue to prepare for potential rivals such as China.

Moreover, Pentagon officials say the global-security environment has changed completely since Sept. 11, tilting toward uncertainty. "US forces, in all probability, will be engaged somewhere in the world in the next decade where they're not currently engaged," said Ryan Henry, the Pentagon's principal undersecretary for policy, in a February briefing. "But I can tell you with no resolution at all where that might be, when that might be, or how that might be."

As a result, military officials have concluded that it is unwise to craft a force for specific threats. Instead, they hope to use the more robust special forces to head off crises, while keeping the broader military as flexible as possible to respond to any situation anywhere in the world.

It is a lot to ask of today's soldiers. But so far, they have shown themselves capable, and the Pentagon cautions against looking at the 2007 budget as a barometer of department priorities. Recent weeks have been just "a snapshot in time along a continuum of transformation," said Mr. Henry.

Yet some analysts worry that in its efforts to be more elastic, the military is spreading itself too thin. There simply might not be enough money for new training, transformation, and all the old weapons systems. Although America spends a greater share of its national wealth on defense than almost all Western nations, that percentage is lower now than it has been during any war since before World War II. That means Pentagon leaders must make tough choices.

Pentagon trying to be all things?

So far, critics say, they haven't. "They say we have to be perfect at everything at the same time," says Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "We can't afford to be perfect at everything.... There's a fixed size of the pie."

In addition, by adding to its portfolio the labor-intensive duties of nation-building without adding troops, the military has opened itself to questions about manpower.

The Pentagon hopes the new special forces will bear most of the burden by helping local security forces keep order in their own lands. But experts question whether the US is well prepared for the potential of another war like Iraq - in Iran or Pakistan, for example - in the near future.

"The priority of high-end warfare and not insurgencies [in the budget] is a mistake," says Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Insurgencies are the war of the present."

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