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To resolve the quantity-quality dilemma, try prioritizing

In a keynote address Monday at the Navy's second annual Future Strategy Forum, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work warned attendees - and by implication, the incoming Trump administration - against using a future defense budget increase to enlarge force structure at the expense of modernization.

The increase in question presumably would result from lifting the current Budget Control Act cap on defense spending. In fact, Work pointed out, the current Five-Year Defense Program already makes a $107-billion bet that the BCA cap will be lifted, adding roughly $21 billion a year to today's budget.

However, Work noted, far from permitting an increase in force structure, that money merely would avert further cuts. That, the urgent need to refurbish an aging nuclear posture and a growing deferred maintenance backlog across the force would virtually consume any post-BCA budget increase.

In fact, Work argued, given current resources, "our forces are too big. Why? Because we have taken risk in Army modernization, we've taken risk in munitions, we've taken risk in facilities modernization. But with the stress on the force, we can't go lower, so we're holding the force structure and we're taking this risk."

Just to sustain current active force levels and also modernize, he declared, would require another $88 billion a year. "That doesn't buy you an extra ship, that doesn't buy you an extra airplane, that doesn't buy you an extra soldier or sailor or airman or Marine," he pointed out. "That just gets you where you need to be, fills in the hole."

Apart from the still unresolved matter of whence the additional money would come from were the BCA cap lifted, Work's comments define an increasingly troublesome dilemma about the best use of such increased defense funding should it materialize.

Boiled down, that dilemma resolves into a question of quantity versus quality, at a time when technological changes increasingly threaten to out-pace the U.S. military's ability to keep up with other great power competitors.

In no small measure, that challenge is self-inflicted. It reflects the intrinsic disadvantage of a military with global commitments when confronted by potential adversaries whose less demanding overseas ambitions allow them to focus proportionately fewer resources on readiness and force structure and proportionately more on force modernization.

Work acknowledged as much. "I'll tell you right now," he informed his audience, "if I had $20 billion [more] a year right now, I wouldn't buy more force structure. I would really focus on cyber vulnerabilities, making sure the C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) grid is resilient, can withstand repeated assault."

And cyber is only one of the militarily relevant technologies on the table. Electronic warfare, space systems, directed energy, autonomous platforms - all are evolving at an accelerating rate, and all cost a good bit of money to develop and field.

Meanwhile, conventional weapons development hasn't stood still. In the past few years, while low-intensity wars from the Middle East to the Horn of Africa and beyond have consumed U.S. military resources, Russia and China have taken advantage of that preoccupation to design and field advanced conventional weaponry from new tanks and artillery to 5th generation aircraft and modern warships.

Given all that, even the demise of sequestration won't resolve the resource dilemma facing President Trump's Pentagon. At best, in Work's words, an uncapped defense budget will allow planners to fill in current holes. It won't help much to preclude the even more dangerous ones in the process of forming.

The bottom line is that the U.S. defense posture is and for too long has been over-stretched. For more than a decade, we've attempted to have our strategic cake and eat it, and the bills are coming due.

Work is right: no politically realistic defense budget will support even today's over-committed force structure, let alone a significant enlargement, without forfeiting the modernization essential to keep the U.S. military abreast of a steepening technology curve.

That's a forfeiture that we simply can't afford. The next administration will need to make some hard choices, and the most effective choice it could make would be to reduce the nation's way too extensive and unproductive overseas military commitments.

In turn, that will require doing something that we've resolutely refused to do for far too long, and that is ruthlessly prioritize our strategic interests. At the end of the day, neither ISIS nor Al Qaeda nor any of their extremist ilk can damage us as badly as would the weakening of our ability in conjunction with our allies to deter the reemergence of an ambitious would-be hegemon in Europe or East Asia.

Failure to do that in the past produced two very expensive conflagrations. We really don't need another.

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