Rumsfeld’s List

May 1, 2002

It’s a good thing that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is forceful. He has a staggering job on his hands, and a leader with less steel in his spine would have little chance of success.

As Rumsfeld describes it, the challenge for the Department of Defense is to accomplish three difficult objectives at once:

  • Win the war on terrorism.
  • Restore the vitality of the armed forces, worn thin by a decade of neglect.
  • “Transform” the services to prepare for the future.

“Each of these tasks must be done,” Rumsfeld told Congress in February. “None can be put off.”

The situation was bad, even before Sept. 11. By the turn of the century, the defense program had been cut 15 years in a row. The force was a third smaller than it had been during the Cold War, but it was employed and operating at a rate four times greater.

The services were stretched and threadbare. Their readiness and mission capable rates were down. Facilities were dilapidated and deteriorating. Spare parts and munitions were in short supply.

Equipment was not replaced as it wore out. Force modernization was postponed. The depots filled up with aging airplanes in need of extensive maintenance and demanding considerable time.

Against that backdrop, the Bush Administration had come to office pledging to “transform” the armed forces to meet new threats of the future.

Rumsfeld and his team spent several months studying how to approach transformation, but they were hampered by a fundamental problem: They started in a deep hole because of the requirements backlog left over from the 1990s.

The Congressional Budget Office had reported earlier that it would take about $50 billion a year in new funding to keep the armed forces from slipping any further behind. The cost of transformation would be extra.

Then came the war on terror, with an additional expense of $30 million a day. Overnight, a big job became an enormous one.

Lately, Rumsfeld has been taking flak for the proposed 2003 defense budget, which incorporates the largest increase since the Reagan Administration.

However, a large portion of the increase goes for the war on terror. Most of the budget is allocated to current programs and to keeping the force from sliding deeper into the hole. The amount available for new ventures, including transformation, is not that much.

Eventually, as Rumsfeld proceeds with the objectives he has assigned himself, he will encounter both financial and ideological resistance. So far, he is holding his own.

Of the three tasks on his list, popular support is strongest for the war on terror, where President Bush’s personal commitment is highly visible. Opinion polls find consistently that 90 percent of the American public are in favor of military action abroad to fight terrorism.

There is an undercurrent of anti-war sentiment from the political left, but these views have not spread to the mainstream. The issue, in the near term at least, is mostly financial.

The armed forces have an excellent chance of winning the military part of the war on terrorism if the nation is willing to sustain the effort. Any question of that would disappear in a flash if the United States is attacked again. Otherwise, it will take some work by Bush and Rumsfeld to hold the consensus.

The odds are longer on the other two goals–recovering from the decade of neglect and moving on to transformation–and on these, Rumsfeld will have to carry more of the load himself.

Last summer, before the war on terror began, the White House backed the Office of Management and Budget in cutting Rumsfeld’s funding request for 2002. The constituency for more military spending was pretty slim.

Much has happened since then, of course. Opinion polls find strong endorsement, 76 percent of the public supporting a general increase in defense spending.

All three of the tasks on Rumsfeld’s list are imperative.

We did not start the war with terrorism, but we cannot call it off. The only way out of it is through it. Losing is not an option.

In Afghanistan, the inventory of precision guided munitions fell to dangerously low levels. This is the kind of thing that happens when the provisions for readiness are insufficient.

The war on terror will be fought with the weapons and forces we have today. Transformation will develop capabilities for use by another president and another secretary of defense, just as the successes in conflicts of the past 10 years were attributable to investments made in the 1970s and 1980s.

Transformation is not a simple matter of dumping traditional military forces and adding futuristic ones, though.

Unmanned Predator drones were useful in Afghanistan, but so were bombers, tankers, airlifters, and spotters on the ground. Air superiority and long-range precision strike forces will be as important in the future as they are today.

Transformation must be in addition to, not instead of, current capabilities. In some cases, such as leading edge global strike systems, there is considerable overlap.

Counting the Bush increase, we will be spending 3.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product for defense. That is less than half the average percentage of GDP allocated to defense over the past 50 years.

Rumsfeld’s list is difficult. It is far from impossible.