US Military Still Budgets for Wars Like It's 1993

Next strategic review offers a chance for the Pentagon to better prepare for Hezbollah, Iran and China.

US Army soldiers behind a designated mine-detecting device operator in an area notorious for IED caused injuries and deaths. (Tony Karumba/AFP/GettyImages)

The military must move beyond preparing its entire force to address one or two particular kinds of threats as it did in 1993.

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In 1993, the Defense Department conducted a "Bottom-Up Review" to determine the major threats worldwide and how the U.S. would meet them. The U.S. had just won the Cold War and defeated Saddam Hussein's military in Operation Desert Storm.

It was also at a time when the U.S. military reigned supreme. It had the world's best Navy, best networks, best precision strike weapons and no major superpower to challenge it.

The world has changed since then, largely due to the economic rise of China and other burgeoning powers, and the proliferation of advanced weapon technologies to countries such as Iran and non-state groups like Hezbollah. The U.S. military, however, has not kept up, according to a new report.

"The last really significant change to policies DoD has adopted ... was developed during the 1993 bottom-up review," says Mark Gunzinger, a former member of the National Security Council and deputy assistant defense secretary for Force Transformation and Resources from 2004 to 2006.

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"Precision-guided weapons have proliferated. Other technologies have as well," he says. "Now we see competitors taking advantage of those capabilities."

Gunzinger, now a senior fellow at the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, wrote a new report released Thursday entitled "Shaping America's Future Military: Toward a New Force Planning Construct." In it he argues that America faces conditions similar to what prompted the 1993 review. And it's about time for another one.

"It was at the end of a major conflict, the end of the Cold War. It also occurred at the end of Operation Desert Storm, in the middle of a budget downturn and at a time when the Defense Department needed to come to grips with a new array of threats," he says.

"Guess what: That's exactly where we are today. The end of a major conflict, certainly in a Defense Department downturn, and with an array of threats that, frankly, are making the world more dangerous than even at the end of the Cold War," Gunzinger says.

His report points to proportions of the budget that have not changed dramatically since fiscal year 1992. Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps still have maintained the largest share of the overall defense budget with roughly 30 percent, followed by the Air Force at about 28 percent and Army with 25 percent.

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"Forces today – with the exception of special operations – really look like the force that we had that came out of the 1993 bottom-up review," Gunzinger says.

The military is poised to reevaluate its overarching plans in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review – the congressionally mandated report the Pentagon puts together every four years on the state of threats and how it will address them.

The military must move beyond preparing its entire force to address one or two particular kinds of threats, as it did in 1993, says Gunzinger.

For example, the Air Force prepares itself to defeat invading enemy forces and support the resulting response at two separate borders, such as on the Korean peninsula or in the Middle East.

"Those two conventional cross-border invasions did provide a fairly decent model for planning in the past, but that's not necessarily the kinds of conflicts we need to prepare for in the future," says Gunzinger, pointing specifically to the White House's new "rebalance to the Pacific."

The Air Force's use of drones, particularly the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, have been "fantastic" in wars in the Middle East over the last 12 years. But those won't work well in the Pacific. It should instead focus on long-range, low observable unmanned aircraft, Gunzinger says.

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The Navy should look at more undersea warfare capabilities and long-range threats. The Army should spend less time focusing on repelling tanks and more time on missile defense and training indigenous forces. The Marine Corps should shy away from acting as America's second land army and more for deterrence and crisis response.