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A Progressive Blueprint for Obama’s Military

The report, issued by the Center for American Progress, a group heavily involved in the transition, recommends that the Obama administration’s defense policy break from the last eight years and include a clear set of priorities.

Jul 31, 2020
Iraqi insurgents use palm groves like this one to make conventional warfare difficult for U.S. forces. (
Just as President-elect Barack Obama’s key defense aides conduct a policy review at the Pentagon, a new reportfrom the Center for American Progress lays out a progressive agenda for both military policy and defense budgeting for the next several years.
The report largely embraces the tenets about the future of warfare put forth by a rising generation of counterinsurgency theorist-practitionersemerging from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It explicitly mentions the military’s “decisive effort to capture the lessons learned in both theatres,” referring to recent doctrinal publications like the counterinsurgency and stability operations field manuals. “You’ve got to give priority to irregular warfare,” said Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan Pentagon official and leading contributor to the report.
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Just as important, the report, “Building a Military for the 21st Century,” singles out obsolete or cost-ineffective weapons platforms for elimination. On its chopping block are the Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer, the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor, the Air Force and Marine Corps’ Osprey helicopter, among other programs. Writing that the defense budget requires precision and prioritization, the report’s authors urge that the military slow the pace of the Army’s sprawling Future Combat Systems modernization program and most missile-defense programs. They estimate a savings of nearly $25 billion over four years from their proposed cuts and reductions — and rejects the idea, embraced by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, that the U.S. ought to permanently allocate at least 4 percent of its gross domestic product to defense spending.
The principal recommendation from the Center for American Progress is that a comprehensive defense policy requires a clear set of priorities — something the Pentagon never had during the Bush administration, when military spending ballooned and few programs were cut or slowed down. (A notable exception is the Army’s crusader artillery system, which former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld slashed on the merits and to assert control over the Army.) Prioritization requires an argument about what the threats of the near-future look like. And there, the report endorses much of the counterinsurgency agenda. “It is increasingly likely that, in this post-9/11 world, U.S. troops will more frequently be assigned to non-traditional warfare tasks, including both kinetic and non-kinetic counterinsurgency operations, rather than full-scale conventional wars with near-peer competitors,” it states.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a former speechwriter for Gen. Richard Myers, a recent chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and a former aide to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), said the proposal is in line with Gates’ stated emphasis on irregular warfare. Now a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Eaglen said she approved of the report’s focus on irregular warfare, “as long as it’s not a zero-sum game” with conventional military capabilities. “We can’t acquire [irregular capability] at the expense of conventional ones, but we can certainly do more in the arena of irregular warfare,” she added.
While the report says the U.S. must retain “full-spectrum” capabilities — meaning the U.S. should maintain its expertise in conventional warfare while expanding its competence at unconventional warfare — it urges realism in understanding that the U.S. does not face major conventional threats. “[I]t is unrealistic to continue training primarily for a conflict with a peer or near-peer competitor given the threats we currently face,” the report states. “Unnecessary expenses already overburden the defense budget, and the next administration will be responsible for making the necessary trade-offs to confront these challenges.” The authors propose retaining the capability to rapidly deploy troops to one major conventional theater of conflict.
The report advocates increasing the size of U.S. ground forces by 92,000 soldiers and marines, a goal that Obama has said he supports. Increasing the force, the report contends, will allow for specialization of some forces for irregular warfare, including the training and equipping of foreign partner militaries — a favorite idea of John Nagl, a prominent counterinsurgency advocate. It explicitly endorses “slowly” moving the Army away from a brigade combat-team-centric model — in which brigades are trained primarily for combat and less for unconventional tasks like partnering with foreign militaries — and to “carefully review” proposals for increased specialization.
Eaglen disagreed with the program cuts called for in the Center for American Progress’ plan. “You don’t solve the ‘older’ part of the programs by cutting modernization,” she said. “I think that these programs allow the development of unchallenged capability [and] offer numerous benefits to the U.S. military, most notably being primacy.”
The think tank’s proposal — or at least its parameters for refocusing defense priorities — appears to have support on Capitol Hill. John Murtha, the powerful Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the defense appropriations subcommittee in the House, spoke at a forum Wednesday where the plan was unveiled. “There will be less defense spending” as a result of the economic downturn, Murtha said, although he declined to single out any programs to be cut. He criticized the Navy’s costly vacillation last year over whether to purchase DDG-1000 or DDG-51 destroyers. “We’re trying to buy [ships] at a rate that makes sense,” Murtha said. “You can’t do that when they’re all over the lot.”
Murtha was joined by his Pennsylvania colleague, Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral who last month won his second term in Congress, in calling for a rebalanced national security strategy. “The No. 1 issue is what is the strategy” that procurement supports, Sestak said. He called for an increased role for the secretary of defense — whom he called “wonderful” — in determining what the different services purchase, to provide a “linkage between strategy and requirements.” Sestak also proposed consolidation of the entire defense acquisitions process, citing a “need to know what [programs and weapons are] common among the services,” through a mechanism like the joint staff, which advises the chairman of the joint chiefs.
Korb said there were no plans to send the report to the Obama transition team, even though the president of the Center for American Progress, John Podesta, is running the transition. “With all our reports, we send to whomever requests them,” Korb said. “John has taken leave here. We have no more entree than anyone else. Obviously, we think they’ll be aware of it, and we’re happy to send them a copy if they request.”
Dexter Cooke

Dexter Cooke

Dexter Cooke is an economist, marketing strategist, and orthopedic surgeon with over 20 years of experience crafting compelling narratives that resonate worldwide. He holds a Journalism degree from Columbia University, an Economics background from Yale University, and a medical degree with a postdoctoral fellowship in orthopedic medicine from the Medical University of South Carolina. Dexter’s insights into media, economics, and marketing shine through his prolific contributions to respected publications and advisory roles for influential organizations. As an orthopedic surgeon specializing in minimally invasive knee replacement surgery and laparoscopic procedures, Dexter prioritizes patient care above all. Outside his professional pursuits, Dexter enjoys collecting vintage watches, studying ancient civilizations, learning about astronomy, and participating in charity runs.
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