Defense train wreck or reshaping opportunity?
We can’t afford to wait years to decide whether the dire predictions associated with the latest round of defense cuts are more than political hyperbole. If those predictions prove true then the money we save by cutting national security in order to service the debt will pale in comparison to the high future costs to repair the damage. That is why we must use this time as an opportunity to reshape our armed forces to address future threats.
For more than a year some administration, congressional and uniformed leaders expressed dire warnings about the consequences of significant additional defense cuts associated with sequestration – the automatic spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 – that take effect January 2, 2013. Those dire predictions indicate the deep defense cuts will “destroy the military,”[i] “It invites aggression,”[ii] may force the reintroduction of the draft,[iii] and be “very high risk” for our national security.[iv]
Those are sobering warnings coming from our elected officials and senior generals who caution that the new cuts alone are not the whole problem. The new reductions follow President Barack Obama’s other annual defense cuts and his revised defense strategy that assumes major new risks.
Sequestration will cut $55-$62 billion from defense for each of the next ten years but those reductions come on top of $487 billion already implemented last year. Then there is the matter that in FY 2012 defense was cut $41.3 billion relative to the previous year and FY 2011 suffered a three percent cut from the prior year as well – that’s a reduction of $776 billion over the next decade before accounting for sequestration, according to the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington-based think tank.[v]
Further, Obama’s 2012 defense strategy makes room for these cuts by assuming far more risk in spite of an international environment that is becoming more, not less, challenging. For example, Obama dropped the military’s “two-war” planning concept which suggests we are entering an era of decreased conflict; he downsized our nuclear arsenal, is radically cutting ground forces and is willing to let more conflicts run their course, like Syria.[vi]
But General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified our threats are not decreasing as Obama’s strategy suggests. “In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime right now,” Dempsey testified.[vii]
Not everyone agrees the defense cuts will eviscerate our national security. A 2012 report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) labels such warnings “fear mongering.” CBO’s Winslow Wheeler said the allegations that the Pentagon’s recent budgets are “a catastrophe is consciously constructed, misinforming hysteria.” Wheeler states recent defense budgets are well above Cold War averages and should be sufficient.[viii]
Peter Singer with the Washington-based Brookings Institution is also skeptical about the officials’ dire predictions. He argues after sequestration America will still account for 38% of all global military spending. He agrees sequestration is a “terrible mistake” because it is “un-strategic to hack away at the defense budget in a generalized manner” but the U.S. military after the cuts will not fundamentally change.[ix]
In spite of Singer’s no fundamental change view we are already seeing evidence of military deterioration which supports the “prophets of doom” perspective. Specifically, our 285-ship Navy could decline to 230 given sequestration, the smallest level since 1915, according to the House Armed Services Committee (HASC).[x] Meanwhile, the Pentagon states China’s rapidly growing navy “is now venturing into the global maritime domain, a sphere long dominated by the U.S. Navy.” And Admiral Michael Mullen, the then-chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, stated in June 2010 that “I have moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned about China’s military programs.”[xi]
Our Air Force will lose 200 more airplanes in 2013, according to General Philip Breedlove, the Air Force vice chief of staff. He testified that the average age of our fighters is 22 years; our bombers average age is 35 years; and tankers, the oldest of the fleet, their average age is 47 years.
A shrinking and aging air fleet is especially dangerous for American security because, according to a 2009 Rand study, the U.S. could lose an air war with China simply because we do not have enough fighters to compete with overwhelming Chinese numbers.[xii]
General Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, reported the Marines are deteriorating. We are making “some hard choices inside to extend some of our equipment out past what might have been its normal service life by service life extension programs,” Dunford testified. He added that “67 percent of our units at home station were in degraded readiness.”[xiii]
The HASC published a memo entitled “The Catastrophic Impact of Sequestration” that indicates America is losing its technology edge as well. “Precisely at the moment when advanced military technology is spreading around the world, America would be forced [by sequestration] to make severe cutbacks, eroding our technological advantage,”[xiv] according to the HASC.
Those cuts, according to the HASC, could include termination of the Joint Strike Fighter, termination of a new strategic bomber, delaying new submarines, shrinking our aircraft carrier fleet, and termination of the littoral combat ship essential to defeating anti-access threats from nations like Iran and China.[xv]
The long-term strategic consequences of sequestration on top of the other Obama cuts, such as reductions in weapons procurement and research that slow or stop entire programs will be subtle at first. The true impact might not be evident for years. However, if the dire predictions are correct our forces will inevitably be outmatched and recovering could be at an incredible cost.
Meanwhile, in response to the current austerity, the services will go into a holding pattern of sorts cutting back on readiness, furlough and/or layoff civilian workers, let fewer contracts, and scrutinize all expenditures.
We saw this approach after Vietnam and it led to a hollow force. That approach was wrong then and it is wrong today. The administration and Congress must use this period of austere defense spending as an opportunity to reshape our armed forces to optimally address 21st Century threats.
That requires answering tough questions such as the president already addressed in his new strategy. How much defense do we really need? Obama’s decision to scrap the “two-war” standard creates considerable savings because it says we need not resource forces to fight two simultaneous operations like one in the Persian Gulf (Iran) and one in northeast Asia (North Korea).
Many experts will disagree with Obama’s strategy but it is a starting point for a serious reshaping effort that should create armed forces we can afford and one that addresses our emerging threats.
This reshaping must not be left totally to the services because they are too close to the problem and have equities to protect, as do their industrial base. We need a fresh look at our emerging threats and available resources. Nothing – not current structures, weapons systems, forces, roles, or missions – should be exempt from the knife.
A non-ideological and totally objective look at what kind of armed forces we really need for the 21st Century would be a very positive outcome of these fiscally challenging times. We might actually tap into American creativity to produce a plan that breaks lots of tea cups but gives America improved and more affordable armed forces.