You have to give President Obama credit. It takes serious gall to tell the American military to its face that you are putting it on the road to second-class status.
That’s exactly what our commander-in-chief did at the Pentagon yesterday, as he announced nearly half a trillion dollars in new spending cuts, after already chopping $480 billion during his first three years in office. He also set out plans for drastic reductions in our force size and continuing weapons programs, including the F-35 fighter — our last best hope for maintaining American dominance in the skies.
Obama’s been trying to reassure Americans all this won’t endanger our national security or our strategic interests. Everyone in or out of uniform who’s free to speak knows better — and that with a full-scale war still underway we are standing on the brink of our weakest military posture since Jimmy Carter, and our smallest forces since before World War II.
Part of Obama’s rationale is his declared belief that America no longer needs to have a military big enough to fight two wars at once — even though that’s been our historical experience more often than not (think the European and the Pacific theaters in World War II, Vietnam and the Cold War with Russia, Iraq and Afghanistan).
More important, President Obama doesn’t understand that our military’s role isn’t just fighting wars. It’s providing a strong strategic presence that will influence events in our favor — and away from that of adversaries and rivals. Even he admits these drastic cuts can only come through shrinking that presence world-wide, which means deep cuts in our forces in Europe and the Middle East, while expecting a shrinking navy (which could wind up with barely 230 ships by 2020) and air force to keep our interests safe in the Pacific region — where China is surging.
Yet as the latest confrontation with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz shows, while a war rages in Afghanistan and a peace threatens to come unglued in Iraq, not to mention Pakistan, the Middle East is still a major crucible of conflict. And even if our European allies are willing to take up the slack and beef up their defense budgets as we leave — a highly dubious proposition — our vote on what happens there and with a belligerent Russia and increasingly anti-Western Turkey will count for less and less.
Still, the lasting damage the Obama chainsaw does is not to our military’s present, but to its future.
Of course, Obama’s team says it can still defend that future by spending smarter and cutting out “waste, fraud, and abuse” — this, from the people who inflated our deficit by $1.5 trillion, and gave us the $787 billion non-stimulus and Solyndra. In fact, it’s the programs that define the cutting edge of future military technology, and will lead the next military revolution, that are now the most in peril.
A good example is the Future Combat Systems, the program for transforming the Army into a highly mobile force with unmanned combat vehicles and other futuristic technology launched by Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon. The program itself was axed two years ago, with the promise that the resources allocated for modernization would go directly to the Army and Marines. Don’t count on that now.
Other examples are the Airborne Laser, also axed in 2010, and the Navy’s hypersonic electromagnetic rail gun, which could help combat Chinese anti-ship missiles aimed at our carrier strike groups in the event of a conflagration in the Pacific, the region President Obama claims he’s so worried about. It lost its funding earlier this year. Missile defense will certainly be next to feel the knife.
Unlike our big army or naval bases, these programs have little or no constituencies, which means they get little attention or protection from Congress. Yet they are vital to preparing America for its future wars, and to its credible strategic presence. A cash-strapped Pentagon is bound to cut them first, even as our present force structure is dwindling to potentially perilous levels.
Fortunately, some of the Republican presidential candidates have seen the danger coming. Mitt Romney has urged keeping the defense budget at 4 percent of GDP — today’s baseline programs are barely above 3 percent — and wants to expand the Navy’s desperately endangered shipbuilding program. Rick Perry has asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to resign rather than accede to cuts that are, in Newt Gingrich’s words, “very dangerous to the survival of the country.”
Still, until Congress and the American public wake up to the peril lying ahead, Obama will continue his program of unilateral American disarmament — that is, unless the 2012 election can stop him cold.
— Arthur Herman is the author of the forthcoming Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Built the Arsenal of Democracy That Won World War Two, which will be released by Random House in May.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.