The Sequester Is A Rare Gift to the Military

Now the military has an opportunity to change.

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Marvin H. McGuire IV is a Commander in the U.S. Navy with deployments throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Arabian Gulf. Nancy Walbridge Collins teaches international affairs at Columbia University, where she is a research fellow with the University's Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies.

Today's defense discussion focuses on the ways that across-the-board cuts undermine our national security. A newly dedicated Pentagon website tracks where and how taking a half-trillion dollars out of its budget guarantees a hollow U.S. military, and therefore creates a readiness crisis.

Missing from this debate is how reductions create the environment most conducive to change. Decreasing the extant budget is not a calamity, or even a predicament. It is certainly not a catastrophe. Let's discard the hyperbole and think strategically.

Few military experts assert that U.S. armed forces are winning today's fights in places such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Mali, in economies that range from threat finance to the uranium trade, and in digital domains, notably cyber espionage.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

The nation has tried throwing money at the problem, by doubling defense budgets and sharply increasing security monies across departments in the last decade. However, we have yet to overhaul the fundamental approach.

Funding programs without transforming national security policies and methods is, at best, unproductive, and more probable, cements barriers to change. Adversaries—from terrorist cells to rising powers—know better than to confront the United States through conventional warfare. Yet we continue to make deep investments in standard forms (from fixed wing aviation to aircraft carriers), further ingraining such systems, and do not make similar commitments to inventive and experimental warfare which directly confront, erode, and exhaust threat networks.  

Looking forward, these sequestration cuts fortunately pave the way for new configurations and increased integration. We know which programs and capabilities have served their intent. We can applaud their success, announce that today is their expiration date, and we can (and must) move on. With such elimination, the burden of legacy systems, bloated bureaucracies, and disproportionate accumulation can be eased. These are the necessary first steps to create a sharp, incisive, and effective force, attuned to manifold risks, and unwilling to yield. [See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

Leading 21st century forces must be prepared for high-risk and hostile environments. They will need to function independently, with a small footprint, deploy rapidly, and devolve operational and tactical decision-making to the company and team level.

Such forces will foster secure and accessible global commons. This is in the nation's best interest. It requires partnered activity operating with shared norms. Persistent and proactive engagement with all populations, and forms of government, will underpin this twenty-first century strategy. To undertake major combat operations will be understood as the last resort option. If taken, it must be perceived for what it is: national and international failure.

Now is the moment for bold action from the White House. It is the beginning of the second Presidential term, and new principals have arrived at Defense, CIA, and State. Their shared task requires each of them to become more courageous and resolute. It serves no good for them to settle into their role. The President should demand much more from them. In their first month, each should initiate constructive commotion—brave action for national good.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Are Cuts to the Defense Budget Necessary?]

To start: Secretary Hagel should cancel the Joint Strike Fighter Program, consolidate all aviation components in the Air Force, and disperse U.S. forces in Germany to diverse locations, from the Maldives to Honduras. Secretary Kerry should eliminate all travel restrictions to Cuba and significantly extend and ease international student visas after their graduation from U.S. universities. Director Brennan should announce a new agency for paramilitary operations that would consolidate CIA and U.S. Special Operations Command activities in a single entity dedicated to threat networks. Hagel, Kerry, and Brennan must plow through the myriad impediments and get it done.