The Year of Decision

Nov. 1, 1990

NATIONAL defense stands at a turning point. The United States is engaged in a reevaluation, the most comprehensive in forty years, of its security needs and policies.

History will recall 1989 as sweeping change when the Warsaw Pact collapsed and political shock waves spread through the Soviet Union. Enthusiasm grew worldwide for principles and values long espoused by our own nation.

In the main, 1990 has been a year of transition as the nation explored and improvised its initial response to global change. We have heard all manner of plans for lowering our defense posture. Most of these proposals, however, owe more to concern about the budget deficit than to sound strategic evaluation.

Before the invasion and occupation of Kuwait by Iraq, a twenty-five per cent reduction to US armed forces was practically assumed, and still deeper cuts were threatened. The Middle East crisis has had a sobering effect on our national exuberance, but it remains to be seen if the reminder is lasting.

We believe 1991 will be the pivotal Year of Decision, in which choices are made that will shape the defense program and national security for the next decade and perhaps beyond. It appears that the primary arena for this debate will be the federal budget for Fiscal Year 1992.

The Air Force Association is concerned that the nation is heading into this Year of Decision without a clear definition of defense requirements, risks, and rational options. We see a definite possibility that the defense program of the future may be based on speculation, optimistic assumptions, arbitrary budget goals, and expectations of a massive peace dividend.

The United States is inevitably a nation with global interests and global responsibilities. Neither our safety nor our interests can be automatically secure. The world of the next decade will be marked by massive and unprecedented change, instability, uncertainty, and the redistribution of the year of power and the demand for power. The old order is changing. The new order is not yet apparent.

AFA warns against a rush to disarm. Once we demobilize our forces and let our defense investment options lapse, recovery in response to unforeseen danger assuming that such a recovery is basically feasible will be an expensive, long-range process. The future may not allow us the luxury of time.

What Defense Must Do. The Air Force Association reaffirms its belief in the strategy of deterrence. Our security is best served when we make war, aggression, or armed intimidation unacceptable risks for potential adversaries.

The first mission of US military power is to deter attack against the American homeland. Our forces must be sufficient not only to defend the United States itself but also, in cooperation with our allies, to protect free world interests in Europe, the Pacific, the Middle East, southwest Asia, Latin America, and other areas. They must defend US interests abroad, including economic lifelines and routes of essential access, and be prepared to project power as demanded by national policy and emerging circumstances.

Credible strategy requires manifest capability to meet a range of threats across the spectrum of conflict. This strategy cannot be calibrated only to the current environment. It must take into account military, economic, and political developments that could affect our security in the years ahead.

In addition to standard strategic and tactical missions, the nation clearly expects the armed forces to be effective in drug interdiction, counterterrorism, and other unconventional roles. It would be a mistake, we believe, to mandate priority for these additional roles at the expense of traditional missions.

The Threat. The paramount threat, Soviet military power, has declined but not disappeared. The Soviet Union in 1990 remains the most militarized nation on Earth. Its strategic nuclear forces continue to increase in numbers, accuracy, and lethality. Soviet conventional forces, even after the expected drawdowns and anticipated arms-control reductions, will be the major military power on the Eurasian landmass.

The Soviet Union is modernizing every component of the strategic force it would retain under the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. It is developing replacements for its first-line fighter aircraft, which already challenge US fighters in capability. In many areas, including air defense, gains in Soviet force quality are amplifying the direct military threat. These concerns are compounded by the Soviet Union’s internal instability and by the uncertainty of its eventual role in the world and its relationship with other nations.

Another dimension of the threat is the proliferation of high technology, nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and chemical weapons. We must understand that potential Third World adversaries are no longer a trivial military problem. As recently as last summer, for example, few Americans had any serious concern about Iraq, despite the fact that it is strategically situated and that its military establishment is the sixth largest on Earth.

Global instability on a scale not seen before in modern times poses a threat that cannot be defined precisely. Powerful forces of change are at work in Europe and elsewhere. It is impossible to predict their ultimate effect.

Forces and Capabilities. To defend its interests against the array of threats, the United States requires a balanced mix of land, sea, and air forces. The caliber of forces depends on careful management of four variables: force structure, force modernization, readiness, and sustainability. All are important. None can be emphasized absolutely at the neglect of the others.

As numbers decline, quality becomes critical, and the tolerance for marginal effectiveness decreases. If we indulge the delusion that today’s systems and capabilities will do for the requirements ahead, US forces will find themselves second best on some future battlefield. Force modernization and technology development must continue.

Most of the present qualities of military force will continue to be important, but we believe certain characteristics will increase in significance.

  • Range. With overseas deployments and basing less certain and the site of future actions unknown, US forces maybe required to project power for greater distances and perhaps from American shores. Even with overseas bases, the need to conduct long-range operations will intensify.
  • Precision. In wars of the future, it will be necessary to locate and destroy difficult, high value targets with greater accuracy and weapons efficiency than is possible today. It will become essential to do this from beyond the range of lethal defenses. In lower intensity conflict, US forces may be called upon to penetrate hostile territory and achieve limited but extremely precise results.
  • Intelligence. For strategic and tactical warning, arms-control verification, targeting, battle management, general surveillance, and other purposes, US forces of the future will need better information, collected and communicated much more rapidly than is possible today.
  • Mobility. A reduction in force levels and a diminished US military presence abroad will put more pressure on our ability to deploy forces, along with whatever they require to sustain operations, to the scene of crisis or combat.
  • Endurance. Forces must be more capable of sustaining operations with less reliance on logistics and maintenance support. systems must be of high reliability and survivable against sophisticated opposition.

In this context, airpower has certain inherent advantages. It is fast, flexible, long-reaching, and unrestricted by geographic barriers. It can be applied to a diversity of purposes from dropping troops to delivering bombs. We believe airpower is central to defense requirements of the future. We further believe, however, that sound strategy calls for the coordinated development and employment of all elements of military power. At this juncture, the nation would be poorly served by service rivalry for roles and missions.

Areas of Specific Concern are:

  • Defense Manpower. Able, experienced, well-trained forces are the single greatest asset a military commander can have in crisis or in battle. A radical drawdown, taken in haste, will surely degrade the ability of the armed forces to perform their missions. On principle and to preserve morale, motivation, and force quality the impact on military members and defense employees must be a constant consideration as we reduce and restructure.
  • The Defense Industrial Base. The decline of the defense industrial base, already a problem of disturbing magnitude, has accelerated dangerously in the past year. US forces depend on a strong industrial base for weapons and technology that keep abreast of the threat. When vital industries disintegrate or disperse to other markets, the capacity will be beyond practical recovery, since rebuilding would take many years.
  • Technology. Tomorrow’s capabilities begin with today’s technology base. In periods of retrenchment, when force modernization programs are curtailed, it is critical to continue exploration of promising technologies. This is an investment in a range of options to meet requirements that the future will almost surely bring.

The Question of Resources. An adequate defense is not beyond the nation’s means. Defense did not cause the federal deficit, nor has it robbed domestic programs by consuming an excessive share of resources. Over the past twenty years, the relative defense burden and the rising federal deficit have followed generally divergent trends.

The current cost of defense is about five percent of GNP and falling. It is projected that by 1995, defense will account for its lowest share of GNP in fifty years and the smallest percentage of federal outlays since before Pearl Harbor.

Radical reductions, taken without reference to requirements and realities, would be wasteful as well as strategically unwise. Moreover, such reductions will not solve the nation’s economic problems, which derive from a different set of circumstances.

Restructuring Responsibly. We believe the United States must continue its role as a force for freedom, stability, and peace in the world. It may now be possible to achieve this and to protect our national interests and objectives as well with a reduced military force, provided that Soviet reductions proceed as anticipated and that US reductions are conducted carefully, with understanding, and in a responsible manner.

The Air Force Association pledges increased effort to promote education and public understanding of the issues that will define the coming debate.

In the Year of Decision, it is imperative that we decide wisely, rationally, and in full awareness of our defense requirements. In a dangerous and unpredictable world, we cannot gamble our security on the premises that the future holds no surprises or that freedom needs no defense.