Magazine | September 16, 2013, Issue

The Army You Haven’t

Why Washington is slashing the defense budget

When Barack Obama assumed office in 2009, the American military was already fragile. The last major military build-up had happened 25 years before, in the Reagan administration. Years of high deployment rates beginning in the 1990s, coupled with inefficiencies in the Department of Defense and underfunding of procurement and modernization projects, had caused the armed forces to shrink and rust. The Navy and Air Force were too small, and all three services desperately needed to replace their ships, planes, and vehicles with new, technologically more advanced equipment.

In 2010, Congress created a National Defense Panel to review the status of the military. It unanimously concluded that under then-current budget trends “a train wreck was coming” for the armed forces.

Since then, the situation has worsened: The government has reduced defense spending on three occasions, making close to $1.5 trillion in cuts over the ten-year budget window. The government currently plans to spend approximately $575 billion (adjusted for inflation) on defense in 2020, which is $100 billion less than it spent in 2010, and over $200 billion less than Secretary of Defense Robert Gates thought would be necessary in 2020. At the beginning of August, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the result of a Pentagon study on the effects of the sequester, which imposed the most recent cut, of $500 billion. The study was officially called the Strategic Choices and Management Review, or SCMR,  and known (not entirely tongue-in-cheek) within the defense community as the “scammer.”

The SCMR assumed three possible budget scenarios: one in which the sequester was repealed after this year, one in which it was not repealed, and an “in between” scenario in which there was a partial repeal. The study found that unless the sequester were fully reversed, the military would have to cut either capacity or capability. If capacity, the Pentagon would slash the Army to as few as 380,000 active-duty soldiers, eliminate as many as three of the Navy’s eleven carrier strike groups, reduce the Marine Corps from 182,000 to as few as 150,000 personnel, and retire the Air Force’s older bombers. If capability, the military would take a modernization “holiday” for a decade, ending or reducing the few current modernization programs.

The SCMR had many shortcomings. For one thing, it never confronted the connection between “capacity” and “capability.” Numbers matter; at a certain point, technology cannot make up for the deficiencies of a force that is too small.  For another, its budget projections are probably too optimistic. Even without the sequester cuts, for example, the naval shipbuilding plan was not adequate to buy the number of ships that the department says it needs. But whatever its deficiencies, the SCMR at least confirmed officially what everyone already knew: If current trends continue, the United States will within a few years no longer be a global military power, in the sense of having neither a consistent, comprehensive global presence nor the ability to project power effectively and quickly throughout the world.

My concern here is less with the effect of the cuts on the military — those are not surprising to anyone familiar with the Defense Department — than with the reasons for them. Why is the government, on a bipartisan basis, reducing America’s defensive capabilities at a time when the threats to the United States are so manifestly growing? It’s rare that any of our leaders directly address this question. They made the cuts without any analysis of the impact and without giving any specific justification. But it is possible to discern the impulses behind their actions. Let’s consider them now, and provide some responses.

We can’t afford to fund defense adequately. Reducing the debt is a matter of national security and justifies accepting additional risk to America’s national interests.

Concern about the debt has been selective, to say the least. At the same time as the defense cuts were beginning, the $800 billion stimulus package was going into effect. Not a dime of that was spent on our military force structure. The theory was that a vast increase in spending was necessary to get the economy moving. Whatever the merits of that theory as economic policy, why couldn’t it have applied to defense spending? Was investing in Solyndra or state-government grant writers better for the economy than replacing aging military inventory with equipment produced by American workers in high-tech manufacturing plants?

If the stimulus is counted — and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be — the only major category of spending that has been reduced in the last four years is defense spending. By any measure, defense spending has been reduced by far more than the rest of the budget. Yet anyone who looks at the federal budget can see that the real problem is the growing structural gap between the amount the government is collecting and will collect, and the amount it pays out and will pay out, for entitlement programs. That gap, which is currently estimated to range up to $85 trillion, hasn’t been reduced at all. It’s likely to get even bigger as long as our leaders relieve the political pressure to reduce it by only taking steps — such as slashing the defense budget — that make the short-term deficit smaller. Entitlement programs are consuming more and more federal revenues, inevitably squeezing the entire discretionary budget, including defense. Cutting defense isn’t the solution to the budget crisis; it’s a symptom of it, and it’s becoming a short-term political enabler of it too.

#page#But forget about the entitlement programs for a moment and look only at the publicly held debt of the United States — the debt attributable to accumulated deficits over the years. Currently it stands at $16.7 trillion, or about 105 percent of current GDP. The defense sequester will save at most $50 billion per year, or about 0.3 percent of GDP; the total defense cuts from the last four years will save at most about $150 billion per year, or about 0.9 percent of GDP. (They won’t actually save that much, because part of the planned savings comes from deferring training and necessary maintenance on vital equipment. That backlog will have to be reduced — even our government won’t keep large parts of its military sidelined indefinitely for want of training and maintenance — and when it is, the cost will be much greater than if the work had been done on time in the first place.)

That means that our leaders are dismantling the finest professional military in the history of the world in order to reduce by less than 1 percent of GDP each year a debt that is already 105 percent of GDP — in a world where Iran is getting nuclear missiles, North Korea has threatened to turn the United States into a “sea of fire,” China’s power is surging, and al-Qaeda is strong enough to force the closure of 22 American diplomatic posts across Africa and the Middle East for more than a week. The polite, Washington phrase for this is “accepting more risk.” In the House, Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Jim Cooper call it putting the Pentagon “on a diet.” Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta, who is at a stage in his career in which he can afford to be more frank, called it “shooting ourselves in the head.”

The United States can reduce waste in the Pentagon and use the savings to maintain defense.

There is waste in the Defense Department, and its costs aren’t just financial. For one thing, the compensation system is unbalanced, so that younger members of the military are often cash-strapped while the retirement package is so generous, and retirement is permitted at such an early age that highly productive senior personnel often feel as if they must retire because of the financial advantage to their families. Additionally, the acquisition system is broken: Programs that should take five to seven years to procure often take a decade or two, which has undermined confidence that the Pentagon could actually acquire the inventory it needs even if money were available. Obviously, waste of this kind should be eliminated. But that’s not an answer to the current crisis facing the military, for three reasons.

First, the funding shortfall has now grown so great that it dwarfs any potential savings. The SCMR estimated that $10 billion could be saved over the next five years by reforming the Defense Department. That figure may be achievable, but it would represent less than one-tenth of the cuts in the last four years alone, not to mention the bill accumulated from years of underfunding military modernization.

Second, much of what Washington calls wasteful Pentagon spending either isn’t waste or wouldn’t save money in the short term. For example, many claim that money could be saved by eliminating foreign bases. But unneeded foreign basing has already been largely eliminated; the bases that remain are the cheapest way for the United States to project power and sustain a global presence. Another round of closing domestic bases, even if politically possible, would actually increase expenditures in the short run (closing bases costs money); the savings, if any, come only in the out years.

Another example is compensation reform. Cutting active-duty pay or retroactively reducing retirement benefits would be wrong on principle and impair recruitment and retention. Military personnel are volunteers. They don’t have to serve, and they will be less likely to if, after years of hard fighting, the nation shows its gratitude by cutting their pay and benefits. The right answer is to rebalance the compensation system over time, grandfathering in most of the current personnel. That will produce significant savings as soon as eight or ten years down the road, but it is not an answer to the current crisis.

Third, most of the solid ideas for waste-cutting reform have been around for years. Nothing has happened, because real reform usually carries a political downside. President Obama has been personally hands-off on the subject, and few in Congress relish laying off thousands of civilian employees or cutting military-retiree health care. It’s much easier politically to cut force structure. The current funding shortfall is so great, and its consequences so devastating, that it may create the political will to eliminate waste. That’s about the only good thing about the current crisis. But no one should bet on its happening, and in any event it won’t come close to solving the problem.

#page#Our allies should bear more of the burden, and if we reduce our defenses, they will.

The short answer: They won’t. The Europeans have been cutting their defense budgets more than the United States, and for the same reasons. The Australians announced an increase several years ago, backed away from it, and are now spending less on defense as a percentage of GDP than ever before. Taiwan has been decreasing its military’s budget. Japan, which along with Taiwan is most threatened by China’s growing power, announced this year that it will increase its defense spending for the first time in eleven years — by less than 1 percent.

Our allies can bear a greater share of the burden than they now do, particularly in Asia. But that will happen, if at all, over the long term, and only if they have confidence in America’s commitment and leadership. The smaller powers in the region won’t risk irking the Chinese with new defense capabilities unless they believe that America will be there to back them up. (Japan might rearm on its own, but that would bring with it a whole set of undesirable complications. Ask the South Koreans how comfortable they would feel about a Japanese rearmament that occurs outside the umbrella of American power.)

From conservatives: The government is too big and should be reduced. From liberals: The military-industrial complex is too powerful.

Conservatives are right to worry about the size of government, but they should distinguish between activities that are necessary and legitimate and those that are not. Forcing people to buy health insurance isn’t the same thing as providing for the common defense. The Constitution creates a limited central government of enumerated powers; the chief function of that government, and its only mandatory duty, is defense of the nation.

The Department of Defense operates the tools of hard power — the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines — against foreign threats. Its chief missions since World War II have been the following: Protect the American homeland from direct attack (an increasingly vital and difficult mission in an age of asymmetric weapons); protect the rights of Americans to trade and travel in the “common” areas of the world — the seas, the air, space, and cyberspace; maintain presence and power in parts of the world that are vital to American interests (chiefly Europe and Asia) so as to deter or at least contain aggression; and anchor an international order within which disputes can be peacefully resolved and democratic institutions have the best chance to grow, in the belief that such a system provides the greatest margin of safety for the American people.

Those are necessary and fully constitutional functions of the federal government, and the part of the government that performs them is not too big; if anything, it’s too small.

The “military-industrial complex” may have been formidable during the Eisenhower years, but not anymore. Years of underfunding procurement have caused the defense industrial base to shrink. From 1990 to 2000, the number of major-surface-combatant shipbuilders fell from eight to three. The number of fixed-wing-aircraft developers also fell from eight to three. For the first time in 100 years, the military has no new manned aircraft under design.

There really is no powerful political constituency that fights for the “top line” of the defense budget — the total amount spent on defense each year. There are contractors who lobby to fund their particular programs, governors who lobby for National Guard bases, and health advocates who lobby for Pentagon medical-research money — but no powerful special interest that fights to increase total defense spending. Does anyone familiar with Washington believe that defense would have been singled out for budget cuts if there were?

America has been engaged in too many adventures abroad. We have no business fighting long and dirty wars in behalf of people who often don’t even want us in their country.

Or as President Obama likes to put it, we should engage in “nation building at home.”

The unspoken premise of this argument is that America’s capabilities might tempt it to engage in unnecessary conflicts, and that if the armed services are unprepared for those missions, they won’t be ordered to do them. But when has that been true? The United States has engaged in five major conflicts since the end of World War II: Korea, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait, and the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only one of these operations for which America was prepared was Operation Desert Storm. Read the story sometime of Task Force Smith and the Battle of Osan, the first major engagement of the Korean War. Our government had cut the military so much after World War II that the American forces were poorly equipped and had no plan to defend South Korea. They were ordered into combat anyway, and were overwhelmed in that early engagement.

#page#America never anticipated or prepared for Iraq or Afghanistan. In the mid 1990s, the working assumption of our defense policy was that the United States would not face an existential threat for at least a decade, and for the foreseeable future would not have to put large numbers of boots on the ground for extended periods of time. As a result, the active-duty Army was cut almost in half, and the government failed to procure equipment necessary for counter-insurrectionary conflict, such as up-armored Humvees. Within five years, the 9/11 attacks occurred, and two years after that America was engaged in two conflicts that both required large numbers of boots on the ground — despite our lack of preparedness. The costs have been clear: Many of our soldiers and Marines have had to engage in multiple tours of duty; even those who were not killed or wounded will be dealing with the physical and emotional consequences for decades.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at the time, “You go to war with the army you have.” He was right. And when the military is unprepared for a conflict, it’s not the politicians who suffer for it. It’s our servicemen and -women who must bear the consequences when civilian leaders who are weary of current wars decide not to prepare them for future ones.

In February, Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he essentially argued that the United States has engaged in too many military adventures and should prepare to contain rather than confront aggression, including Iranian proliferation. Whatever the merits of the various options regarding Iran, Senator Paul was surely right that a meaningful national debate on foreign-policy strategy is long overdue, and so far among conservatives only he (and Senator Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, in a more recent speech) have even attempted to begin one.

But how does America contain aggression except by preparing to defeat it? Intervention requires strength, but containment does too. Containing an Iran emboldened by the possession of nuclear weapons would require a fully deployed missile-defense system, constant and increased naval presence in the Persian Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean, and reinforced American military bases in the Middle East. And all of this would have to be achieved while maintaining enough deterrent strength to contain aggressive actors elsewhere, such as China.

Our government has a poor record, to say the least, of predicting world events. The top brass at the Pentagon have no idea what the foreign-policy inclinations of future administrations will be. In fact, if recent history is a guide, the next president may not have any foreign-policy inclinations at all: The last three were chosen despite the fact that they had virtually no experience in international affairs. The best that the Pentagon can do — if their civilian masters give them the resources to do it — is to prepare all the tools that a future president might reasonably need to deal with the crises that can be foreseen. There is no guarantee that future presidents will make good decisions, but depriving them of options will certainly not prevent them from making bad ones.

Ronald Reagan was arguably America’s greatest post-war foreign-policy president. He was the only one who systematically built up America’s armed forces while being very selective in their use. He declined to become involved militarily in the Lebanese civil war. He sent arms but not men to the Afghan rebels. He used a low-risk operation in Grenada to dispel Vietnam-era doubts about American resolve. He outflanked the Soviets’ strategic build-up by proposing global missile defense.

Reagan was not uniformly neoconservative, neo-isolationist, Wilsonian, or realist. But he understood the truth that transcends those divisions: While strength does not guarantee success, weakness guarantees failure. Without power, nothing America does will work. Our red lines will be crossed; our sovereign rights will be ignored; our diplomats will be insulted and attacked; our foreign aid will bring nothing in return; our peaceful gestures will be seen as signs of decline; our friends (and there still are many) will be disheartened; and our enemies (they are still few in number, but real) will push harder and harder — until finally America is confronted with unavoidable challenges for which it is unprepared, and in which the stakes are higher than anyone would like.

Sound familiar? It’s exactly what is happening now. And it will continue to happen unless our leaders shake off their malaise and begin purposefully to restore the tools of power without which the country they are supposed to be protecting cannot be safe.

– Mr. Talent, a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Jim Talent — Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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