Having said all of this, I would note that the Pentagon appears to have played a bad fiscal hand the best it can. For one thing, it has avoided some of the mistakes that have characterized past Department of Defense responses to budget cuts. The first of these mistakes has been the propensity to cut the three military departments equally, regardless of the security environment. Cuts after Vietnam as well as after the collapse of the Soviet Union have reflected this approach as the Departments of the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy (Navy and Marine Corps) each absorbed one-third of budget reductions.
Clearly the Army takes the biggest hits under the current defense budget. Not only does the service decline from an end strength of 520,000 to between 450,000 and 440,000 (420,000 if sequestration is reimposed in fiscal year 2016), but also the budget request kills the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle program, designed to replace the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, and retires the Air Force’s A-10, a platform dedicated exclusively to close air support of Army formation.
Despite the handwringing observation that the Army will be reduced to its smallest end strength since 1940, this reduction makes sense given the security environment and a domestic opposition to “boots on the ground” resulting from the fatigue of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also the case that, to a certain extent, the Army has been hoist on its own petard by its own internal resistance to the idea that the service should be shaped by the sort of missions it has executed over the past decade — i.e., counterinsurgency and stability operations. In the absence of such missions, and given that the prospect of a large force-on-force land war seems remote, the rationale for a large Army is diminished.
Nonetheless, the maintenance of a robust Army National Guard and reserve component seems to indicate that the Pentagon is not going to repeat a mistake it has often committed: concluding that land forces are no longer necessary. It did so in the case of the New Look (airpower makes land forces obsolete), after the Vietnam War (ground forces will never be asked to do counterinsurgency operations again), and after Desert Storm in 1991 (airpower and information technology — leading to a “revolution in military affairs” — trump land forces).
The Naval Services (Navy and Marines) and the Air Force also will be cut but not as much as the Army. This reflects the reality of the observation by the British strategy writer Colin Gray that if the United States is to be a land power anywhere other than in North America, it must also be a sea and air power. Naval and air-force strengths are necessary not only to maintain access to the global commons but also to fight and defeat an adversary in the disputed littoral areas of the world for the purpose of sustaining land operations against an enemy. Those forces must be able to counter the growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities of our potential adversaries and operate in a non-permissive environment.
Thus the Navy will maintain eleven aircraft carrier battle groups until 2016, when the USS George Washington will be retired. In addition, the Navy’s cruiser force will be reduced, the littoral-combat-ship buy capped at 32, and other shipbuilding programs slowed. Marine Corps end strength will be reduced from 190,000 to 182,000 (175,000 if sequestration is reimposed in 2016). The Air Force will reduce its fighter wings, including all of the aforementioned A-10s, in order to help fund the new F-35. The Air Force continues to shift from manned to unmanned airframes. Of course, sequestration would lead to far deeper cuts if it is reimposed after 2016.
To its credit, the Pentagon has avoided the error of investing in one military capability at the expense of all others, the error of the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” of the 1950s, which funded long-range strategic (nuclear) bombing to the detriment of naval and land power. Finally, the Pentagon has avoided the attempt to maintain a large force structure while modernizing the military. When the United States did this in the 1970s, the resulting low readiness and sustainability created a “hollow force,” one incapable of carrying out its missions.
The Pentagon now seems to have adopted an approach to budget cuts that instead mitigates the worst possibilities. Of course, the risks associated with these budget cuts are substantial. As the old saying goes, any plan of war that depends on the cooperation of the enemy is bound to fail. And our enemies are not likely to cooperate.
The Obama administration has chosen to orchestrate American decline. The Pentagon has chosen a path that, although not without risks, may buy some time in case the U.S. electorate wishes to reverse this choice for decline. Otherwise American power may indeed be “one with Nineveh and Tyre.”
— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia. The views expressed here are his alone.