Point of View

What our changing military mission means for NC and the country

May 16, 2013 

Now that members of Fort Bragg’s 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade have joined NATO’s mission in Kosovo, they shouldn’t be surprised if they find themselves running into fellow Tar Heels.

Already deployed there is a detachment of Chatham County National Guardsmen as well as Camp Lejeune Marines who are spending six months training with countries across the region.

If you’re asking why so many of North Carolina’s service members are in Kosovo, where an ongoing response to Serbia’s 1998-99 campaign of ethnic cleansing continues, you’re in good company.

The Pentagon has similar questions about whether and how the military should continue with peacekeeping and state-building operations like this. Major wars are coming to an end, budgets are falling and there are no easy answers about how to adjust.

“Why have we chosen this mission?” has to be the first question.

It has a number of answers. States in the region value NATO and U.S. leadership and view the military mission as a tangible symbol of that commitment. Additionally, once an organization as big as the U.S. military starts a mission, it takes on a momentum of its own. Meanwhile, comparatively small and safe missions like this one can escape question relatively easily.

Whether any of these responses is satisfactory is an entirely separate issue. Some see policing regional friction as noble and strategically worthwhile. Over 13 years since the ethnic cleansing, and with both Serbia and Kosovo interested in being NATO partners, others ask whether U.S. military goals have already been achieved. Debates about whether this is a proper mission for the military also are on the table.

Yet the most practical and immediate concern may be the burden work like this places on U.S. taxpayers.

Soon after Congress imposed caps on the budget, the Pentagon narrowed its planning to exclude “large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” But then the Army Chief of Staff emphasized that “we shape the international environment … by building partner capacity.” Kosovo seems to have elements of both: a prolonged stability operation that has partially morphed into a capacity-building mission.

As long as this mission continues, the next question is how the military will fulfill it. That’s a sensitive matter. Declining budgets have pitted military institutions against one another in a struggle for relevancy and resources.

Fort Bragg’s news release for the 525th’s assignment spoke volumes: “The deployment of an active unit is a cost savings for the Army, officials said, as well as a much-needed reprieve from the high deployment tempo National Guard and Reserve units have experienced in the past decade.”

The National Guard stridently disputes the assertion that citizen-soldiers are more expensive than full-timers, as well as the implication that its forces cannot maintain the scheduled pace of operations. Indeed, a task force sponsored by the Defense secretary and led by former state Rep. Grier Martin of Raleigh found the exact opposite. Martin’s December 2012 report calculated that Reservists and National Guards cost two-thirds less than active-duty personnel.

Competition among different military institutions may appear counterproductive. In Kosovo, just as with all operations, we need these forces to be squarely on the same team – and they are. Yet within the Pentagon, this sort of competition is healthy and necessary for efficient management.

Wrapping up operations in Afghanistan, and Iraq before it, means there’s less military work to go around. If the Guard continues at a similarly steady pace of operations, the Pentagon might fulfill its remaining missions and still reap savings by shifting some active-duty personnel into part-time status. Or, if the active-duty military picks up missions like Kosovo after its wartime work is done, the Pentagon could cut costs from the Guard by lightening its workload.

Absent that efficiency, though, both institutions would retain wartime resource levels even though the wars are over. That’s bad strategy, in addition to being bad spending. Putting a ceiling over the defense budget has made the Pentagon acutely aware of those costs, forcing it to wrestle with questions that are already apparent to many North Carolinians: why and how the military should do this work.

Kosovo and the military mission there may not register in many of our minds. Now is a good time to tune in. North Carolina is at the front of that effort, and our various commitments foreshadow major decisions coming up for defense strategy and spending.

Matthew Leatherman is a resident fellow at the International Affairs Council of North Carolina. The views here are his alone.

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