While the country awaits the results of the ongoing negotiations over the debt ceiling, the Obama administration is beginning to implement its plan to cut $400 billion from the defense budget. In recent days, the president has indicated that he is prepared to support even deeper cuts.
With the American people distracted by high unemployment and record deficits, the administration has quietly leaked various aspects of its massive assault on the Pentagon budget. The Navy Department, which comprises the Navy and Marine Corps, could be cut by over $10 billion. Research-and-development funding, the lifeblood of America’s technological dominance in warfare and a powerful engine for the broader civilian economy, is set to decline by 8 percent. Major weapons systems are to be eliminated or reduced to irrelevancy, overall force levels will decrease by nearly 50,000 personnel, and the amount of time our troops will be able to spend in realistic training will likely plummet. In an area where prudence dictates a delicate scalpel, the Obama administration has chosen instead to wield an ax.
We have seen this movie many times before, and it does not end well. As recently departed Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted at the end of his tenure, world events and history march on, regardless of the economic fluctuations of the moment and other domestic pressures. The rush back toward “normalcy” at the end of World War I left the United States ill prepared when it became engulfed in an even greater conflict a generation later. The post–World War II rush toward demobilization left the United States military unprepared and untrained for the savagery that awaited them on the Korean peninsula, resulting in unnecessarily high casualties. The end of the Cold War and policymakers’ pining for a long-awaited “peace dividend” resulted in a series of unwise defense cuts. Nearly all the cuts Bill Clinton and Congress made to balance the budget in the 1990s came from defense — and it was only the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that brought military spending up again.
Another series of ill-thought-out defense cuts could yield even more catastrophic results. One would not know it from the tenor of the discussions now going on in Washington.
Today, the U.S. spends roughly 4.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, compared with an average of 7 percent since 1945. The claim that defense spending contributes significantly to our out-of-control deficit, echoed by a Left-Right coalition in Congress and the media, is farcical. Like his recent predecessors, President Obama has been content to allow the share of our GDP spent on defense to shrink while increasing the burdens placed on our military. Whatever the merits of the Libyan intervention or the troop surge in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has been tasked with a growing array of missions with a budget that has been steadily shrinking in both relative and absolute terms. Only fools seriously believe that a weakened America will increase global security. Already there are signs that even talk of its decline has increased world instability.
In addition to the longstanding threat of Islamist terrorism, the U.S. faces a dangerously shifting balance of power in East Asia. As it enhances its role on the world economic stage, China has been steadily increasing its military capabilities and ambitions. By all reports, the Chinese have become ardent readers of the great American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who saw naval power as key to enhancing a nation’s economic development and presence on the world stage. Students of the American presidency remember Mahan for his influence on Theodore Roosevelt, who made the United States a power in the Pacific as well as in the Atlantic.
China’s leaders talk of an “active defense” that sees various strategic locations on China’s periphery as essential to Beijing’s economic and political survival. To this end, they have developed a navy capable of denying American forces access to crucial waterways such as the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Deeply shaken by President Clinton’s decision to send the Seventh Fleet down the Taiwan Strait in response to Beijing’s threats against Taiwan in 1996, the Chinese set out to develop weapons systems capable of deterring a similar American response in the future.
Through several initiatives — which include deploying anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, some of which are thought to be aimed at American aircraft carriers, and developing a submarine program capable of intimidating many of our Asian allies — China is coming dangerously close to achieving one of its major strategic goals: reducing, if not eliminating, an American presence in East Asia. The nations of the region — allies such as Japan, Singapore, and the Philippines, as well as former enemies such as Vietnam — look anxiously for signals that the United States will retain both the will and the capacity to remain active in their region. Should the current balance of powers and interests in the region be replaced by Chinese hegemony, these nations will have little choice other than to negotiate their own arrangements with China. Rest assured, these will come at great expense to American economic and security interests.
The Obama administration’s intimations of drastic defense cuts serve only to embolden China and other competitors. A U.S. Navy with its smallest fleet strength since the 19th century and serious shipbuilding problems cannot afford a $10 billion cut. All reasonable people can agree that there is waste and redundancy at the Pentagon; the challenge is targeting actual waste, such as the Defense Department’s bloated civilian workforce and dysfunctional contracting process, rather than the weapons systems and personnel required to deter aggressors and, if necessary, win America’s wars.
— Alvin S. Felzenberg, author of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game, lectures at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania. He is the former communications director for the 9/11 Commission and served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense under Pres. George W. Bush. Alexander B. Gray has studied at the War Studies Department of King’s College London and the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.