Upcoming U.S. Defense Strategy: Weakness, Trembling, and Passing the Buck
Official Washington has begun to focus on the implications of the planned sequestration of funds in January that will result in record cuts in defense spending. But while the financial impact is grave, attention should be paid as well to the administration's philosophical approach to defending our national interests, laid out in a January DOD paper entitled "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense."
Noting that America must put its "fiscal house" in order, President Obama introduces the paper as America's solution to a scarcity of resources and growing complexity of challenges. Written with the budget cuts of FY 2013 in mind (though not sequestration), the guide lays out a framework for a leaner and more nimble military. The goal, according to the president, is to keep America's "... Armed Forces the best-trained, best-led, and best-equipped fighting force in history." Does the guide produce a better military for less money? To answer the question, examine the underlying premises of the administration's strategy.
The basic, pre-sequestration premises are:
- The U.S. will not be engaged in large-scale ground operations;
- Smaller, more flexible forces can cover counter-terrorism operations;
- The U.S. nuclear arsenal can safely be reduced, and nuclear modernization is not an immediate issue;
- European allies have adequate defense resources to complement those of the U.S.;
- The U.S. has the resources to "pivot to Asia" without abandoning its responsibilities in the Middle East; and
- Regardless of the size of the defense budget, the U.S. retains the intellectual and productive capacity to "gin up" whatever is required for unforeseen contingencies.
As the military withdraws from its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the guide postulates a smaller footprint in counter-terrorism, but with a wider reach. Hostile entities such as al-Qaeda have migrated from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen, Mali, and elsewhere, escalating what was once a regional conflict to a global level. Maintaining long-term operations in the areas in which non-state actors such as the Taliban operate will remain troublesome as they shift. The administration proposes a "recalibration" of American capabilities in pursuit of a more adaptable strategy with a smaller budget. The U.S. military will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations. This "adaptable" military will in essence, according to the guide, expand the United States' stabilizing presence by moving smaller and lighter forces from place to place, enabling its allies to better combat these hostile entities. It's a sort of macabre game of whack-a-mole.
Anthony Cordesman, a pioneer in defense spending analysis, calls this wishful thinking and "fortune cookie prose." What the Pentagon has available to spend to further these goals and the costs associated with operations "providing a stabilizing presence" do not line up. For instance, the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan may save American resources, but how can anyone maintain that the United States places a "premium" on an American presence in the region while it abandons its allies? "Abandon" may seem like a strong term, but the U.S. has already canceled the police training program in Iraq that was to have been the centerpiece of continued security. There are complaints even now in Afghanistan that the Americans are pulling out too quickly for Afghan forces to fill the gaps. Furthermore, governments in the region rely on American money and equipment as well as training missions as the centerpiece of long-term security. When budget cuts enter the picture, failures in the very forces that allow America to maintain an indirect "stabilizing" presence could result in doubts about America's commitment to the region. The document's pledge to cut spending and provide stability simultaneously rings hollow in this respect.
With regard to nuclear strategy, the administration postulates, "It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force." The guide does not elaborate on what constitutes a credible nuclear deterrent. Where the guide fails to provide details, however, the administration's actions regarding America's nuclear arsenal emphasize reductions rather than maintaining a strong deterrent. Currently, it is estimated that the administration will reduce the arsenal to 1,000 to 1,100 warheads. (The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [START] limits America's arsenal to 1,550 by 2018.) Furthermore, the arsenal is outdated, with the newest additions being over twenty years old. Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation noted that the United States is the only nuclear power without a substantial modernization program. The Russians and the Chinese take modernization seriously, while the administration has focused its attention on reduction. If, as the guide posits, one U.S. goal is to lessen the pressure on America's conventional armed forces and deter aggression, modernization and minimal cuts to the arsenal would make more sense.
Recognizing the difficulties inherent in the budget shortfall, the strategy relies on America's allies in Europe to aid in the defense of common interests. The report sees Europe as a "producer" of security rather than a consumer, meaning it can help the U.S. rather than relying on the U.S. for security assistance. Europe can be, if not equal to America's military might, a valuable partner in America's quest to maintain stability in the world, according to the paper. In light of Europe's continuing and growing economic difficulties, such assessment would seem an overstatement, to put it mildly. Defense spending in Europe has been reduced to where contractors located on the continent are desperate to find consumers abroad to unload backlogs. England's military, one of America's staunchest allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, is facing dramatic cutbacks. Many of America's allies are unwilling to spend the necessary resources on their own defense, much less help the U.S. Despite the economic reality, the paper maintains that Europe is filled with some of America's most "stalwart" and capable allies. Politically, perhaps, although after coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are wary of new commitments. As a fighting force, European countries will prove a brittle cane on which to lean in operations abroad.
Renewed focus on Asia also figures prominently in the paper, as it has in the president's speeches. Pentagon plans to increase America's presence in the Pacific would indicate that America is taking potential adversaries such as China seriously. However, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said defense cuts increase the risk of fielding a smaller force. This leaves the impression that America will be relying on a strong qualitative edge over its enemies, requiring a significant investment in R&D. But cuts in the military threaten to undermine R&D programs. Meanwhile, nations such as China increased their defense spending in the past year; in China's case, it was over 11%. This year, Asia is expected to surpass Europe in military spending. Furthermore, despite the "pivot to Asia," the United States boosted its naval presence in the Persian Gulf due to the Iranian threat to the Straits of Hormuz. The reinforcements include two aircraft carriers and their strike groups. Simultaneously, Iran's navy grows stronger by the day as it acquires more fast attack boats and anti-ship missiles. How does the Pentagon plan to boost its presence in Asia while reinforcing its fleet in the Persian Gulf with a smaller budget?
Wishful thinking is not in short supply when it comes to this document, but what stands out in particular is the idea of America's "regenerative capabilities." Found on page six, "DoD will manage the force in ways that protect its ability to regenerate capabilities that might be needed to meet future, unforeseen demands, maintaining intellectual capital and rank structure that could be called upon to expand key elements of the force." This amounts to an admission that American capabilities will suffer from budget cuts, but the risk is acceptable because America can regenerate or recreate them. The defense industrial base -- including factory lines, skilled workers, and strategic metals and minerals; a ready supply of soldiers in an all-volunteer force; a cadre of seasoned officers; and basing rights, prepositioning, and alliances will be difficult to "regenerate" in an emergency.
The impression left by the defense guidance is that the administration believes that it can provide a credible defense at home and abroad while spending less, failing to modernize the nuclear arsenal, and reducing our international footprint. It outsources a variety of foreign responsibilities to overburdened, less capable, or disinterested allies. It makes no effort to resolve vague and contradictory goals, and it expects that the American people will pull a rabbit out of its hat when the next big crisis comes.
The next big crisis is sequestration.