Sam Nunn’s Defense Strategy

June 1, 1990

Dissatisfied with the caliber of what he was hearing from the Pentagon, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) decided to try his own hand at drafting a defense strategy attuned to the times. He disclosed the conclusions in four major speeches to the Senate in March and April.

It is an impressive body of work: comprehensive, tightly reasoned, and coherent. Coming as it does from the most respected voice in Congress on defense matters, it may be the most accurate preview yet of what lies ahead for the armed forces.

Senator Nunn prescribes a smaller and leaner military. Unlike those who slash at defense blindly, though, he surveys the threats, requirements, and programs fully, rather than poking at isolated parts. He also recognizes the scope of Soviet military power that will remain when draw-downs and arms-control reductions are done.

Pitting the potential threats against requirements that range from defense of the American homeland to “forcible entry in small or medium-scale contingencies,” Senator Nunn arrives at his alternative strategy. It groups into five “essential elements”:

Deterring with less. Nuclear deterrence must continue as “the critical underpinning” of US strategy, but Senator Nunn argues that it can be achieved with fewer weapons and greater stability. He would “slow down” the Peacekeeper rail-garrison ICBM and seek an arms-control ban on land-based ICBMs with multiple warheads. The single-warhead Midgetman might be deployed initially in existing Minuteman silos.

Fewer forces abroad. Gradually reduce US troop strength in Europe to 75,000-100,000 Those remaining overseas would be mainly lead elements of combat and support forces, structured to receive reinforcements. Some bases might be manned by austere rotational units. Allies would assume larger defense roles in their regions.

Reliance on Guard and Reserve. Unless there is a clear reason to keep a mission in the active forces, consider its transfer to the Guard or Reserve. Senator Nunn says that the Air Force uses air reserve force components effectively, but that the Navy “must get more serious.”

“Flexible readiness.” Keep high-priority forces at full readiness, holding others at an adjusted level of readiness with a mission to “be ready to get ready.” Applied wisely, Senator Nunn says, this approach need not lead to “hollow forces.” The other choice, he says, will be deep cuts in force structure.

Managing and modernizing. Retire such older, high-maintenance systems as the B-52 bomber and the RF-4 reconnaissance aircraft. Emphasize upgrades to existing systems. It might be possible, Senator Nunn suggests, to improve the F-15 and F-16 sufficiently to defer the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF). Seventeen modernization programs are on his list for more deliberate scrutiny, now that a reduced threat “means we do not have to rush to buy a weapon system.” Substantial investments are indicated in sensors, “smart” weapons, simulators, and “leapfrog” capabilities that promote technological advantage.

This strategy, Senator Nunn believes, would provide an adequate defense and might also save up to $255 billion in budget authority ($190 billion in outlays) over the next five years. At the same time, he warns against frantic efforts to cut the defense budget and offers a tutorial for those who believe a quick peace dividend in the $20 billion range can be had from 1991 defense outlays.

(The federal deficit crisis revolves around outlays–funds actually disbursed during a year–rather than budget authority, which is authorization to spend, with outlays perhaps spanning several years.)

Careful to note that he does not endorse them, Senator Nunn cited examples of actions that would achieve only modest savings in 1991 outlays. Putting 100,000 active-duty troops out of service involuntarily would yield $1.4 billion–and less if enlisted members thus dumped get severance pay. Laying off 100,000 civilian employees would save $1.8 billion.

Pickings are likewise slim in the procurement account, which spends out slowly. To save $3 billion in 1991 outlays, it would be necessary to cancel the B-2 bomber, rail-garrison Peacekeeper, Trident submarine, D5 missile, Seawolf-class attack submarine, C-17 airlifter, LH helicopter, National Aerospace Plane, ATF, F-15, F-16, F/A-18, and AV-8B aircraft, M1 tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and assorted surface ships.

There are shaky spots in Senator Nunn’s strategy. If things turn sour, rebuilding US forces may be more difficult than he makes it sound. The industrial base will be scattered and the trained manpower demobilized.

What if our allies refuse the roles assigned them in the strategy? We defend allied interests because doing so is in our own interest. Our global presence may shrink, but our global interests will not.

If the Soviets keep developing weapons while we hold back, could be the technological leapfroggers and we the leapfrogged.

There is no chance that Senator Nunn’s strategy will be adopted without much amending, patching, and debate–but it may well be the departure point from which the defense program of the future arises. If Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney has a more credible plan, he had better trot it out.