Military services seek more relevance, funding amid Pentagon’s new strategic focus
A new federal budget and a new national defense strategy have the Army and the nation’s other military services angling to carve out a slice of the budgetary pie and ensure their relevance in the Pentagon’s newfound strategic focus on Russia and China.
After more than a decade focused on the threat of al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, the growing military competition with traditional nation-state rivals such as Russia and China in hot spots around the globe is the driving factor behind the White House’s $718 billion defense budget request for fiscal year 2020, unveiled by Pentagon officials this week.
The threats posed by Russia and China were the central focus of the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, or NDS, released in early 2018. The proposed budget released this week is the first expression of that vision in dollars and cents.
Defense Department Comptroller Elaine A. McCusker told reporters this week that the budget moves beyond the “Desert Storm” model, a reference to the 2003 campaign that overthrew Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Deterring or defeating great power aggression is a fundamentally different challenge than the regional conflict against rogue states that were the basis of our planning constructs for the last 25 years,” she said. “China and Russia will not fight us the way we have gotten used to fighting.”
Within that Pentagon budget of $718 billion, Defense Department leaders have set a baseline request of $545 billion and are calling for $165 billion to finance ongoing combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere as part of the Overseas Contingency Operations, or wartime funding accounts, according to the Defense Department.
Of the Pentagon’s $718 billion top-line figure, Navy leaders would receive $205 billion in the coming fiscal year, an increase of roughly $9 billion over last year’s request by the sea service of $196 billion, service officials told reporters Tuesday. The Army’s share of the fiscal year 2020 budget would total $190 billion, an $8 billion uptick over last year’s service budget, top Army brass said.
But the Army’s budget battle plan is perhaps the most strategically ambitious of those put forth by service leaders. The ground service stands to lose the most if it cannot successfully make the case for its role in the new NDS world.
Although the Army has been in near constant ground combat in the Middle East and Southwest Asia for nearly two decades, its role in confronting Russia and China in a conflict would be much murkier, given the inherent focus on air and maritime operations in such missions.
The blueprint seeks to strengthen the Army’s capabilities in areas such as cyber, electronic and information warfare, and to boost its role in advising foreign forces all with an eye toward curbing Russian and Chinese influence in the Pacific and Eastern Europe.
But the Army’s newly minted strategy, known as Multi-Domain Operations, or MDO, bears a striking resemblance to the strategy put forth by traditional special operations forces, which are also looking to pivot away from the terrorist threats of the post-9/11 era and toward those emanating from Russia and China.
Those parallel efforts could set the stage for a bureaucratic fight over who carries out what missions in the decades ahead.
Backers of the Army strategy see the proposed budget as a critical opportunity to secure the service’s role in the U.S. defense architecture and as a boon for its languishing weapons programs.
“The Army is about to crack open plenty of funding eggs, and Congress should let it get cooking,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Spoehr said, but that push could face resistance on Capitol Hill.
“Everyone thus far, including members of Congress, seems OK with [the Army] strategy. But it is about to get more difficult because what seems OK in the abstract often gets difficult” once lawmakers weigh in on those spending plans, said Mr. Spoehr, now director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The Army’s budget proposal seeks $12 billion for research and development of next-generation weapons and combat systems such as extreme long-range artillery and advanced air and missile defenses that equipment service leaders say they need to carry out the new multidomain strategy. Additional investments in unmanned systems, artificial intelligence and cyberwarfare will put the Army on par with ongoing efforts by Moscow and Beijing to modernize their militaries, a top Army officer said.
To synchronize a combat campaign, the challenge is to align effects from the cyber and information warfare realms onto the battlefield, Army Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, deputy chief for Futures Command, told reporters last week. “This is real hard to get after, but quite frankly, we see our peers doing it pretty aggressively each day.”
Officials at U.S. Special Operations Command are drafting their own guidance to reorient the command’s cadre of military units to take on a larger role in cyberwarfare, information and “influence” digital age propaganda operations, sources say, as well as training allies in the skills.
“It is fair to say you will see a rebranding of special operations forces,” Andrew Knaggs, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism, said last month. “Our problems will not be addressed through conventional deterrence alone.”
The biggest advantage that special operations units provide in the new strategic environment is during “competition short of conflict,” or a Cold War-style deterring of an adversary, Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, special operations command chief, told lawmakers last month. That gray area between a hot and cold war “is arguably the most important phase of deterrence,” he said.
Gen. Wesley did acknowledge the overlap in certain elements of the Army’s strategy and the one Special Operations Command is adopting, but he said the Army’s ability to conduct long-term, sustained operations makes it the logical service to spearhead a fight against Russia and China.
“You have to get yourself into a position of advantage, and that requires ground maneuver,” the three-star general said. “The Air Force will enable the ground [forces], the ground will enable the air, and that also goes along with the other domains” such as sea-based operations, special operations and those in the cyber realm, he said.
“We can enable [combat] superiority from the ground ... and what we are trying to do is restore that” through the Army’s new strategy, Gen. Wesley said.