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Report: US should place its bets on Navy, Air Force

And now, music to the ears of the light and navy blue services: The U.S. should take a strategic risk and put its chips on naval and air power in the 21st century, according to a new report by a top D.C. think-tank. It should make the the assumption that the Western Pacific and the Middle East, in that order, will be the two key regions of the future, which means ships and aircraft should get an edge over ground forces, the authors say.

Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, Nora Bensahel and Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security argue in their study that the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans will be the keystone of the coming era, and that the U.S. should equip itself accordingly. Now the tricky part: Sharp said in a panel discussion at CNAS on Friday that this would require breaking the "golden ratio" of funding the services about equally, but said he held no illusions about that being easy.

"Implementing this prioritization will be very difficult for several reasons," he said. The U.S. is coming out of a long ground war in which its ground forces have sacrificed a lot, so it would be "immoral" to completely ignore their sacrifice and abandon the Army and Marines' needs to update and "reset." Bensahel observed that unlike previous build-downs, the Army and Marines might not begin to absorb reductions with their equipment in good order.

Not only that, naval and air forces are "capital intensive and very expensive;" there's a lack of consensus about which specific nations or regions represent the greatest threat; and the American public believes the Army and Marine Corps are the most important of the armed services, Sharp said.

"All of those factors will make the golden ratio very difficult to break, but it's our assessment that we must do so."

And how! In addition to cutting many thousands of soldiers and Marines, the CNAS report calls for canceling or delaying the Army's Joint Light Tactical Vehicle; Ground Combat Vehicle; and the Joint Tactical Radio System. It also contemplates deeply reducing the Marines' amphibious readiness as part of the overall strategic calculus. All right you devil dogs, get ready for some heresy:

Some services have acquired substantial assets beyond the requirements of their core mission. For instance, the U.S. Marine Corps – the smallest U.S. service – today boasts more tanks, artillery, fixed-wing aircraft and uniformed personnel than the entire British military. Given the changing operational environment, today’s force has too many heavy armored formations, short-range strike fighters, amphibious capabilities and manned aircraft. While some redundancy provides a useful hedge against risk, today’s extensive overlap among and within each service is unnecessary and no longer affordable, especially when joint interdependencies – such as Army helicopters flying off Navy carriers or Air Force C-130s supporting Marines – can yield comparable warfighting effectiveness at less expense.
What the Marines would say, and what you may also be thinking, is that this doesn't quite add up: If the name of the future game is naval and air power, why would you eliminate the Marines' contributions? In fact, they might argue, tomorrow's era of long WestPac patrols and delicate global engagement could bring a new reliance on expeditionary forces operating from Navy warships. As we saw this week, the role (or lack thereof) of ground forces in wise guys' WestPac vision seems to be a major piece missing from the puzzle.

For all their work and analysis, however, the CNAS authors and other panelists on Friday were realistic about the prospects for some or any of this coming true. As Sharp himself pointed out, polls show that many Americans believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and more generally, the military -- to be the main cause of the country's current fiscal woes. That "perception problem," as Sharp called it, could mean support for reductions in DoD's budget, even though, as Secretary Panetta keeps insisting, the Pentagon isn't the biggest cause of the debt. (Though base defense spending has grown by some 40 percent since 2001 for a force of about the same size.)

Barno called the prospect for that kind of public-driven build-down "frightening." But another panelist, defense budget expert Gordon Adams, was more sanguine. The U.S. has endured big build-downs before and the world didn't end, he said. Much of today's anxiety in Washington is nothing more than "an Indonesian shadow play," he said  -- a big Punch and Judy Show, as opposed to a real crisis.

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