The Corner

The Libya Crisis Reveals the Folly of Defense Cuts

Even as the American military is executing the United Nations–mandated no-fly zone over Libya, politicians and commentators still fail to appreciate the lessons of the world’s sudden fondness for the strength of American arms. While fatigue with decade-long ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has produced a political climate amenable to drastic defense cuts, the lessons of Libya reveal again the dangerous fallacy of treating the Pentagon budget as a cash-cow in difficult fiscal times. As the recent clamor for American air and naval power to enforce the Libyan no-fly zone demonstrates, cuts to the major weapons systems most needed to project American power are particularly dangerous in a world which, bestselling books aside, remains anything but “post-American.”

The Libyan crisis has shown that America is still the “indispensable” nation. If it is to remain so, it will continue to need major weapons systems, of the kind so many self-described “progressives” deride as overpriced, unnecessary, and indicative of a “Cold War mentality.” To no one’s surprise, it falls to the armed services of the United States to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. They will be using the very kind of expensive, technologically advanced systems that have become easy targets for budget cutters. The tools needed to impose American power in crises, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, are those most likely to be eliminated in periods of congressional shortsightedness.

For example, in 2009, the Obama administration eliminated funding for the F-22 fighter, the weapon we are most likely to rely upon during the early phases of the Libyan no-fly zone. It has allowed the Navy’s surface fleet, which will play a variety of critical roles in Libya, to dwindle to its lowest number since the 19th century. Whether the Arleigh Burke class of destroyers or the Ticonderoga class of guided missile cruisers, the Navy’s surface vessels will monitor Qaddafi’s forces from offshore and both direct and fire a variety of ordnance in support of the no-fly zone. These systems will be indispensable in carrying out the mission our military has been given.

The Libyan crisis, and repeated insistence from other nations that the world community simply will not mobilize around any sustained military activity in the absence of American participation, underscore the need for prudence when it comes to cutting back on American defense capabilities. Once it became clear to them that American military power was being made available to this latest “international partnership,” France and Britain became especially bold. Both nations, whose knowledge of and involvement in the Middle East greatly exceed those of the U.S., have deliberately cut back on their defense capabilities to the point that, together and separately, they rank in the middle of middling nations.

France, let it be said, shows greater concern for Libyan rebel forces, about whom it knows very little, than it has historically shown regard for the safety of American soldiers, who have borne the brunt of much of France’s defense. #more#A generation ago, when President Reagan bombed Libya in retaliation for Qaddafi’s attacks on Americans stationed in Europe, France denied U.S. aircraft passage over its territory. Until this week, France had some of the most cordial relations with Qaddafi of any nation in Europe. 

The previous British government, it will be recalled, facilitated the return to Libya of one of the organizers of the Libyan attack on a U.S. passenger plane over Lockerbie, Scotland. That act of barbarism killed 259 people, 179 of whom were Americans, plus an additional eleven on the ground. David Cameron, the current prime minister, who made considerable political hay deriding Tony Blair as George W. Bush’s “poodle” and once compared Britain’s relationship with the U.S. to that of a slave, became increasingly bellicose the instant he learned that the “Yanks” were again on their way. He has gone so far as to seek to redefine the mission of the current military enterprise from sparing civilian lives to “regime change.” All this from a “leader” who last year introduced plans to slash defense spending and deny Britain the forces required to “punch above its weight,” words a former Foreign Secretary used to describe how London envisions its global role. Consider this: In 1982, Margaret Thatcher was able to send the Royal Navy half way across the world to retain British sovereignty over the Falklands without the assistance of a single American sailor. Cameron could not attempt a similar feat today.

Under Cameron’s coalition government, Britannia, far from ruling the waves, will be left with one aircraft carrier, have its force of Harrier aircraft eliminated, and see its surface fleet reduced to only 19 vessels. The weakness of Anglo-French defense capabilities is such that the two have begun pooling their resources in unprecedented ways, even planning to share aircraft carriers rather than investing in the systems required to make their leader’s words anything more than hollow threats dependent on American action. 

Europe long ago surrendered its capacity to influence world events by refusing to field a military capable of backing up its pretensions to world leadership. The United States does not have such a luxury. (Someone should tell President Obama that the reason France and Britain enjoy rail systems superior to ours is because the U.S. shouldered Europe’s defense for sixty years.) Should we follow the example of our purported “allies,” there will be no one else to fill the breach.

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted earlier this month, America’s future military challenges will be “primarily naval and air engagements — whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere.” With that in mind, the United States must continue to invest in the naval and air systems that enable our military to project power around the world, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Taiwan Straits. The speed with which the U.S. Navy was able to carry humanitarian assistance from the Middle East to Japan just this week shows what a flexible, nimble, and sufficiently large navy can achieve. Cutting back on what we do best would be not just foolhardy, but self-defeating.

Alvin S. Felzenberg served as spokesman for the 9-11 Commission. He currently lectures at Yale University, where he is researching a book about NR founder William F. Buckley, Jr. He also teaches at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and at the George Washington University. Alexander B. Gray has studied at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and at the War Studies Department of Kings College, London.

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