September 15, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Budget and Spending

How to Dismantle a Military Superpower

Here we go again. Politicians, looking for places to save money, are wielding the defense budget ax. Civilian Pentagon leaders have ordered the services to find roughly $60 billion in budget savings over the next five years.

Cuts in the modernization budget seem inevitable, considering that the Obama administration is planning a flat or declining defense topline, and the defense funding that is available must be spent first to expand personnel and maintain a high operational tempo for U.S. forces.

The Obama administration's plan is to reduce the overall defense Department budget, including funds for overseas contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, by almost $72 billion between fiscal 2010 and 2011.

If modernization spending simply held steady through 2011, that would still lead to a $22 billion (inflation adjusted) reduction in such funding - a 10 percent cut. However, the Obama administration isn't trying to spread its defense cuts over a five-year budget plan. modernization spending will tumble by $30 billion in 2011 compared with fiscal 2010.

By the end of the five-year period, the modernization accounts will be roughly 18 percent lower than in 2010 (again, in current dollars). Further, keep in mind that modernization accounts were already artificially low because of the procurement holiday of the 1990s.

Reductions of this magnitude call into question whether we'll be able to provide modern weapons to those in uniform over the next decade. Yes, the military is buying a handful of next-generation systems, but those plans will be scaled back because of the ongoing spending cuts. Simply recapitalizing legacy systems will not be enough in 10 years, particularly if the military will be engaged around the world throughout the decade.

Taken together, the current and coming equipment cuts to next-generation systems will further reduce the traditional margins of the U.S. military technological edge against defense investments by other countries. That doesn't mean the United States necessarily will be fighting some peer competitor that today may not exist. Rather, what Washington chooses to invest or not invest in will provide incentive for others to build up where the United States is pulling back.

The Pentagon needs to take a longer view. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich points out, planning today for 2034 would be similar to a committee in 1880 trying to prepare for today. The year 1880 is pre-automobile, pre-truck, pre-airplane, pre-long-distance telephone, pre-electric light, pre-computer. We can expect similar life-changing scientific advances in the next two decades even if the specifics remain unclear.

Ultimately, severe modernization cuts could increase the likelihood that U.S. military capabilities will fall short of the nation's wide-ranging security commitments. Current budget plans indicate the United States may relinquish its military superpower status - not to another nation per se, but by reverting to a position where it lacks the capacity to engage and maintain a forward presence globally.

Likely funding cuts will reduce the U.S. Air Force's capacity to achieve air dominance on a global scale. "Some foreign-built fighters can now match or best the F-15 in aerial combat," journalist Mark Bowden wrote in the March issue of The Atlantic. "America is choosing to give up some of the edge we've long enjoyed, rather than pay the price to preserve it" by building enough F-22s.

Indeed, China and Russia are operating 12 fighter and bomber production lines today. Russia is expanding its fighter forces and fields the Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft, which can carry supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and short-range air-to-air missiles.

China has ordered an estimated 76 Su-30MKK Flanker-Gs and can produce an additional 250 under license, including at least 100 "knock-down kits." China can easily modernize 171 of its jets and build 105 new ones, which means it would have roughly 626 multirole fighters available for air superiority missions. That would place China in the same league as the United States, with our 522 F-15s (of various classes), 217 F-15Es and a planned 187 F-22s.

Meanwhile, a shrinking carrier fleet (the Navy is supposed to have 11 carriers but will be down to nine by 2012) will reduce our ability to project power anywhere at any time. Without modernization, China (which is making huge investments) may leap ahead in space, calling into question our ability to defend ourselves in a crucial theater. Finally, the Army would start to find it more difficult to seize and hold territory against organized ground forces with yet another generation of modernization on the chopping block.

As militaries expand and modernize, the probability of miscalculation grows. Military weakness, real or perceived, encourages enemies to act. Threats to the global system of trade (which rests on the foundation of the U.S.-led security structure) would increase. This delicate system would become more vulnerable to attempts to disrupt access to vital resources. Weakness opens the opportunity for hostile powers to more likely dominate East Asia, Europe or the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. defense budget will continue to favor people over platforms and immediate needs over long-term readiness. The procurement holiday of the 1990s instituted by the Clinton administration and agreed to by a Republican-led Congress put the United States on course to relinquish its superpower military status. The Bush administration, after Sept. 11, was able to slow the advancement down that path, but couldn't reverse course.

Another procurement holiday championed by President Obama would see the United States move further away from where it needs to be, and perhaps, ultimately, relinquish its position as the world's sole military superpower.

Mackenzie Eaglen is the Senior Policy Analyst for defense and homeland security issues in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Mackenzie Eaglen Research Fellow for National Security Studies, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in Defense News