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The Dangers of Defunding Defense

By and

The storms of war have broken in Afghanistan and are gathering in the Pacific, South Asia, the Middle East, eastern Europe, and even in south and central America. Not since the end of World War II has America more urgently needed honest and clear thinking about its enduring national interests and a bipartisan commitment to building up the capabilities—civilian and military—necessary to protect them.

Yet Washington increasingly is looking inward. Faced with divisions at home and the challenge of a tightening fiscal climate, our policymakers spend enormous energy arguing about tactics without thinking about strategy. They react to events rather than planning for the future. Without a common purpose, they are less and less able to resist the demands of their most partisan supporters. And, driven by the desire to save money, they take steps which reduce military spending in the short term but vastly increase the danger and cost to America in the long term.

Death by a thousand cuts

Over the past two years, the U.S. government has been cutting plans and programs which are critical to recapitalizing the legacy fleets of all the military services. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been warning that a resource-constrained environment requires that “hard choices” be made, and on that basis has cancelled or sought to kill a number of defense programs, including the F-22 fifth-generation fighter, the C-17 cargo aircraft, the VH-71 helicopter, the Air Force’s combat search and rescue helicopter, and the ground combat vehicle portion of the Army’s Future Combat Systems.

Missile defenses have suffered as well. In September 2009, the Obama administration abruptly cancelled America’s commitment to place land-based interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. Further, the Pentagon reduced the overall budget for missile defense last year by $1.6 billion, or 16 percent from 2009 levels. Specifically, the Administration scaled back the number of ground-based midcourse interceptors in Alaska and California from the planned forty-four to thirty, terminated the multiple kill vehicle program for defeating countermeasures, deferred the purchase of a second Airbone Laser aircraft, abandoned the Kinetic Energy Interceptor program (designed for intercepting ballistic missiles in their boost phase), and purged funding for the space test bed for missile defense.

The size of the U.S. Navy has been cut by half since the 1980s, and today it is the smallest it has been since 1916—and still shrinking. Yet in a speech before the Navy League last May, Secretary Gates ridiculed the idea that the U.S. Navy is too weak. The Pentagon’s actions belie his words, however. On Gates’ watch, the Navy has already ended purchases of the next-generation DDG-1000 destroyers, extended the production of the next aircraft carrier from four years to five, killed the MPF-A large-deck aviation ship and its mobile landing platform, and delayed indefinitely the next-generation cruiser.

Indeed, defense spending is falling by every metric: as a percentage of the federal budget, as a percentage of the overall economy (or Gross Domestic Product), and in real terms. Yet even with the dizzying pace of defense reductions of late, policymakers are increasing their demands for more defense cuts.

Defense budget cuts are already having dramatic negative consequences for the U.S. military today, and will compromise America’s ability to fight and win both war and peace tomorrow. If America’s elected officials do not reverse the rapid decline in long-standing core U.S. military capabilities, the United States will not only lose a core ingredient of the nation’s superpower status; it will be unable to sustain the capabilities necessary to defend vital American interests in an increasingly dangerous and unsettled world.

Gathering threats

Yet an honest review of world events over the last year should lead no one to be sanguine about American security.

While the United States has made some tactical gains in the war against Islamist extremism, the current administration lacks a coherent strategy for defeating the threat altogether. Meanwhile the top priority of our terrorist adversaries is to develop weapons of mass destruction, and they are making progress; according to the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, terrorists are likely to develop and deploy a weapon of mass destruction as early as 2013.

One hundred thousand American troops are currently struggling to accomplish an ill-defined mission in Afghanistan. Pakistani cooperation against the Taliban remains uncertain, and the Karzai government is an increasingly unreliable partner in the effort. Success is possible in Afghanistan—assuming success is defined as stabilizing the country and creating a government which can contribute materially to its own security. But even the Obama administration is tacitly admitting that this will take a number of years to achieve and will require a substantial number of American troops on the ground for a long time.

It is clear that the Chinese are deliberately developing the capability to exclude the United States from freedom of operation within the western Pacific Ocean. Their purpose is to keep the United States as far as possible from their economic center of gravity (which is along their coast), as well as to underscore their control over the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea.

Just prior to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent visit to China, its military leaders unveiled a new stealth fighter. The test flight of this advanced aircraft highlights what a leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report from a year ago found: the situation in the air over the Taiwan Strait is steadily shifting against Taiwan. While the U.S. debates whether to sell F-16C/Ds to Taiwan, China’s air force is rapidly modernizing. The Pentagon’s latest report to Congress on Chinese military power notes, for example, that “China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise-missile program in the world,” may have already begun construction of an aircraft carrier, and is building new attack submarines equipped with advanced weapons. (Of particular concern in this regard is China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile with a maneuverable warhead and range of more than 1,500 kilometers.)

In early 2009, there were expectations that the incoming Obama administration would achieve a breakthrough with North Korea in the Six-Party Talks. But Pyongyang quickly sent clear signals that it would not be any more accommodating under this presidency than it was under the last. Pyongyang was quick to prove it; over the following months, it threatened to weaponize all of its plutonium and build more nuclear weapons, abandoned all previous disarmament pledges, and vowed to “never return” to the already-moribund Six-Party talks. The DPRK also launched several missiles in violation of UN resolutions, conducted a nuclear test, abrogated the Korean War armistice and all bilateral agreements with South Korea, threatened war against the United States, South Korea, and Japan, threatened the safety of civilian airliners, and closed its border, holding hundreds of South Koreans hostage. Since then, it has engaged in even deadlier provocations, conducting two unprovoked acts of war against South Korea—the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan, and the November 2010 artillery rocketing of Yeonpyeong Island.

Iran continues to be the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. The Iranian regime is closely allied with Syria (another state sponsor of terrorism), regularly supplies terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah with rockets and other arms, foments instability throughout the Middle East, and is hated and distrusted by ITS neighbors. According to the latest round of documents released by WikiLeaks, the Iranians have already acquired advanced missiles from the North Koreans. We can expect Tehran’s aggressiveness to increase substantially once it acquires nuclear weapons.

Russia has been challenging the United States on numerous occasions. In fact, Moscow is taking advantage of Obama’s “reset” policy to crack down on its domestic opposition, jailing (or extending the sentences of) Kremlin opponents like Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Internationally, meanwhile, Moscow is increasingly behaving badly. It is known to have provided ballistic missile technology and advanced weaponry to countries like Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. Russia’s intelligence operations, including sleeper cells, against the United States are as robust as during the peak of the Cold War. Encroachments into the Arctic and an active military modernization program, including nuclear modernization, are likewise a concern as Russia strengthens its power projection capability.

A host of additional threats have the potential to grow more severe, including drug-related violence in northern Mexico; Venezuela’s military buildup (being carried out with the support of Iran and Russia); piracy on the high seas; drug cartels and organized crime at our borders; and failing states such as Yemen and Somali. In short, no place in the world is getting safer for the United States. None of America’s enduring national interests are more secure today than they were even a short time ago. Every category of significant risk is clearly growing. Our leaders in Washington should reexamine the nature of America’s vital interests and assess how better to develop and sustain the capabilities necessary to protect those interests.

But they have not done so. American foreign policy has been drifting since the end of the Cold War. In the absence of strategic clarity, budget considerations have driven defense policy, rather than the other way around.

Reasonable people can certainly disagree about how to respond to the growing dangers. But one thing is certain: a budget-driven policy, occurring in a vacuum, with no consideration of history or understanding of strategic context, is likely to lead to disaster for the United States.

How did we get here?

The current situation is hardly unique in recent American history. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter similarly slashed defense spending following a decade of war. In lieu of repairing the equipment on hand or buying more modern weapons systems, the Carter administration invested mostly in research and development. America’s military ended up a “hollow force,” without the capabilities necessary to protect America’s interests and commitments abroad.

President Ronald Reagan assumed office in 1981, inheriting a struggling economy and a nation suffering from low morale. But Reagan understood the basic equation of world leadership: force plus resolve equals power. And despite the large budget deficits of that era, he managed to secure two double-digit increases in the defense budget followed by additional increases for several years following.

Readiness, confidence, and training all improved within the U.S. military. The armed forces were able to buy a new generation of technologically-sophisticated equipment. Meanwhile, the aging leaders of the Soviet Union realized that they were in a competition which they could not win. Throughout the rest of the 1980s, growing American power increasingly forced the Soviets into a corner until they simply gave up. And the same military that Reagan built during the Cold War overwhelmingly defeated Saddam Hussein and made possible the peace and prosperity that America enjoyed throughout the 1990s.

Upon assuming office, however, President Bill Clinton cut the size of the force by a full one-third. He did so even though military operations around the world picked up nearly three-fold. Military modernization budgets also were cut substantially during the Clinton years, and procurement budgets were reduced much further than the cuts in force size and structure warranted. These reductions in the planned purchases of new equipment caused the age of the inventory to rise, maintenance costs to climb steadily, and readiness levels to drop accordingly.

The dramatically-reduced force of the 1990s was the one tasked to respond to major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade. Under the Bush administration, the strategy-resource mismatch—the gap between dollars and missions—grew deeper. The cost of maintaining an ever-aging force structure ballooned while the Administration postponed investment in new systems that would have helped relieve the financial and practical burden of maintaining the inventory. The defense-industrial base hemorrhaged and lost critical skill sets essential to maintaining America’s military superiority. And the cost of maintaining the all-volunteer force increased to compensate for the stress of asking a limited number of personnel to do so much for so long.

The military that has been responding with amazing resilience since 9/11 in two theaters is skeletal compared to the force that started the 1990s. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, the active duty Army was cut from eighteen divisions to ten. The Navy, which counted 568 ships in the late 1980s, struggles today to sustain a fleet of only 280. And the number of tactical air wings in the Air Force was reduced from thirty-seven at the time of Desert Storm to twenty by the mid-1990s.

The costs of underfunding hard power

America’s leaders have never redefined the global role of the United States since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the absence of strategic clarity, and given the pressure to reduce the deficit while protecting domestic programs, our leaders have repeatedly adopted unrealistically rosy assumptions about the existing threats to America’s vital interests. (The last strategic plan issued by the Pentagon mentioned climate change more often than China, Russia, and Iran combined.) But America does have vital interests, and threats to them do exist. Faced with that reality, America’s presidents have deployed a shrinking and aging force at a rate far higher than was ever necessary during the Cold War.

In short, America’s leaders have consistently underfunded defense procurement for short-term political and budgetary reasons, knowing that what they are spending will not buy the programs they say they need—but knowing also that the effect will probably not be felt until their term is over. It is very tempting to rob the future to pay for the present, especially when the future will be someone else’s responsibility.

The chickens are now coming home to roost as the military faces an unavoidable modernization crisis. The capabilities most in need of support over the next five years include the Navy’s surface fleet, submarine fleet, aircraft carriers, and Littoral Combat Ships. The Air Force needs to fully replace its legacy fighter fleet with F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Consideration will be required for additional upgraded F-15s as the Joint Strike Fighter continues to slip in production timelines, creating a bigger shortfall in the Air Force fighter inventory. The Air Force must also acquire additional precision strike capability, a next-generation bomber, additional lift and more cargo capacity. After skipping two generations of modernization, the U.S. Army needs a new generation of combat fighting vehicles. The military must also restore select missile defense cuts of recent years, bolster sea-based missile defense capabilities, and rapidly build space, satellite, and cyber warfare capabilities.

Given the sweeping defense cuts over the past two years, defense spending and priorities have become a zero-sum proposition. For example, unless funding is increased, it is inevitable that the Navy will be too small to fully support its growing ballistic missile defense missions. A shrinking carrier fleet (the Navy is supposed to have 11 carriers but will be down to nine eventually) will reduce America’s ability to project power. The Army will find it more difficult to seize and hold territory against organized ground forces with yet another generation of Army modernization on the chopping block. The Air Force will lose the global air dominance that not only renders opposing air forces incapable of effective interference during conflict but also neutralizes enemy air defenses and ensures ground force safety in combat.

Thanks to air superiority, no soldier or U.S. Marine has come under attack from enemy air forces since the Korean War. That is changing. “Some foreign-built fighters can now match or best the F-15 in aerial combat,” journalist Mark Bowden wrote in last March’s 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-22 fifth-generation fighters.

Indeed, China and Russia are operating 12 fighter and bomber production lines today. The United States only has one. 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. 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, which has 522 F-15s (of various classes), 217 F-15Es, and 187 F-22s.

As military capabilities atrophy, the United States will be unable to contain China, deter Russian ambitions, dissuade North Korea from aggression, and protect against the Iranian missile and potential nuclear threats. Threats to the global system of trade (which rests on the foundation of the U.S.-led security structure) will increase, and other operations like counterterrorism, counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance, homeland defense, partner development and capacity building, will be compromised.

Many Americans look at the spending in Iraq and Afghanistan and find it hard to believe that the military needs more money. But practically speaking, there are two defense budgets. Funding for sustained combat operations is separate from the core budget for the military; war funding cannot be used to sustain ongoing procurement or modernization, or to support daily operations in the over 100 countries where American forces are relieving flood victims, rescuing stranded cruise ships, stopping piracy, or performing the myriad other functions required to protect the global interests of the United States.

Remedying the situation

It is not entirely true that no one in Washington has been examining America’s enduring national interests, thinking strategically, and assessing the adequacy of defense planning based on that context. Last year, Congress created an Independent Panel of distinguished defense and foreign policy experts to do exactly that. The Commission was led jointly by President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, William J. Perry, and President George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, Stephen J. Hadley. The other 18 members were appointed from across the political spectrum. The Commission first reviewed the Pentagon’s most current strategic planning document, issued in the spring of 2010. While complimenting the Department’s efforts in Afghanistan, the group otherwise dismissed the Pentagon’s plans as failing to come to grips with the needs of national security. The Commission then undertook its own review of the challenges facing the United States.

Acting unanimously, the Commission concluded that America’s enduring national security interests include defending the American homeland, assuring access to the sea, air, space, and cyberspace, preserving a favorable balance of power across Eurasia that prevents authoritarian domination of that region, and providing for the global “common good” through actions such as humanitarian aid, development assistance, and disaster relief. From the very fact that these interests are vital, the panel noted that America must and would defend them against serious threats:

There is a choice our planners do not have. As the last 20 years have shown, America does not have the option of abandoning a leadership role in support of its national interests. Those interests are vital to the security of the United States. Failure to anticipate and manage the conflicts that threaten those interests—to thoughtfully exploit the options we have set forth above in support of a purposeful global strategy—will not make those conflicts go away or make America’s interests any less important. It will simply lead to an increasingly unstable and unfriendly global climate and, eventually, to conflicts America cannot ignore, which we must prosecute with limited choices under unfavorable circumstances—and with stakes that are higher than anyone would like.

The Commission emphasized the importance of preparing for the full spectrum of risk and of maintaining a sufficient margin of superiority so as to deter threats as well as decisively succeed in any missions that are necessary. Under the circumstances, the Commission concluded that America’s armed forces are too small and are relying on an inventory of equipment that is old, unreliable, insufficient in number, and technologically out of date. According to the Commission, “[I]t is unlikely that the United States can make do with less than it needed in the early 1990s, when Americans assumed the world would be much more peaceful post Cold War.”

The Commission members agreed the Pentagon “should plan for a force structure that gives us a clear predominance of capability in any given situation.” For example, the Commission recommended that the Navy be expanded to the 346 ships that had been identified as the minimum necessary in the 1993 Bottom Up Review. The report also identified the urgent need to modernize the weapons and equipment inventory of all the services. According to the Commission, the men and women in the U.S. military are “operating at maximum operational tempo, wearing out people and equipment faster then expected,” and “the growing stress on the force means that a train wreck is coming in the areas of personnel, acquisition, and force structure.”

Getting there from here

Over the last twenty years, there has been a slow but steady decline in American power relative to the risks confronting the United States. The irony of that decline is that it was completely unnecessary. To be sure, there is a price to strength, but there is also a price to weakness. The sums necessary to sustain American predominance were, and still are, small compared to the money which the government has readily spent on other programs and at the cost of reducing America’s margin of safety. For example, had the Army been maintained at or near its size and strength after Operation Desert Storm and through 9/11, the Afghan mission could have been prosecuted more vigorously even when the Iraqi conflict was at its height. That would have reduced the time necessary for success in Afghanistan, and the cost of delay there has overwhelmed whatever savings resulted from reducing the size of the Army during the 1990s.

It is no longer possible to avoid the challenges confronting America’s military. Other nations are beginning to understand and exploit the reality of American weakness. It is still possible to recover the situation, but not if America’s leaders continue pretending that the current downward drift can continue without consequences that no one can ignore. Many leaders on both sides of the aisle are unhappy with American foreign policy. They think that the United States should downsize its commitments and its global leadership role, and that America therefore does not need a large military establishment. It is indeed past time for a thorough debate about the role the United States should play in the modern world. Defense spending, however, should not be the back door through which those leaders try to change foreign policy.

Since the Berlin Wall fell, America has been governed by four Presidents whose views have spanned the entirety of the political spectrum. None of those Presidents has seriously considered abandoning America’s traditional commitments or the role the United States has played since 1945 as the chief guarantor of a liberal international order. Rather, the consistent lesson of the last twenty years is that cutting the size or modernization budgets of the armed forces will not reduce the missions which America’s military must perform. In other words, America’s strategic habits show no sign of changing; the question is whether the United States will adequately support the capabilities, military and civilian, which are clearly necessary to protect America’s vital interests as every president since Ronald Reagan has defined them.

If America continues to underfund the military, it will not mean a less ambitious foreign policy. It will mean hollow security and treaty commitments, greatly increased risk of conflict, and substantially greater casualties for the men and women who serve in the military. Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) summed it up best at a speech at the Heritage Foundation last May: a defense budget in decline portends an America in decline.

James Talent is Distinguished Fellow in Military Affairs at The Heritage Foundation. Mackenzie Eaglen is Research Fellow for National Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Journal of International Security Affairs

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