Big Pentagon Cuts Coming – Can America Have Lower Defense Spending And An Adequate Force? In Principle Yes; But More Easily Said Than Done

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By Paolo von Schirach

January 31, 2013

WASHINGTON – With or without the unwise, draconian cuts envisaged by the “sequester” that may or may kick in very soon, it is obvious that the Pentagon budget is headed down.

Lower defense spending

What does lower defense spending mean for America’s security? President Obama seems to believe that all is well. A decade of war is over. We are done with Iraq and we are getting out of Afghanistan, whatever the outcome of these long and costly operations. So, big savings ahead. By picking dovish Chuck Hagel as his new Secretary of Defense signals that it is both necessary and wise to reduce US defense spending.

How much is enough?

True enough, America has by far the biggest defense budget in the world. The layman may therefore conclude that if we cut some, even a lot, we could not possibly jeopardize our national security, because even after substantial reductions we would still be way ahead of the pack.

Fine. Yet critics would argue that US current defense spending, as a percentage of GDP (about 4%) is very low by historic standards (5 to 9%). And it is headed lower. If we factor in projected spending cuts, we may get down to 2.8% of GDP, and this would be really low.

Asymmetric warfare

But there again basing defense spending on magic figures or ideal percentages of GDP is rather foolish. As September 11, 2001 demonstrated, we are in a new era of asymmetric threats and warfare. With all its might, air defenses, state of the art aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons America was a helpless sitting duck on 9/11. Al Qaeda, a small transnational group of terrorists, mounted a clever, spectacularly successful –and extremely low budget– attack against the US homeland. Their only weapons where box cutters. A bigger Pentagon budget would not have prevented 9/11.

Spending should much the threat

That said, how much is enough for defense? In principle, defense spending should be guided by the nature of the threat against our national interests. In other words, we should be able to field a force capable of preventing or countering any aggressive intent or action against our core interests. And this implies not just a given level of spending, but spending on the right things.

If the threat is represented by mobile transnational terror cells, we need more drones and more highly mobile special forces that could be airlifted where needed at a moment’s notice, as opposed to long range field artillery.

Asian strategy?

But this may not be the only problem America will have to deal with. President Obama proclaimed some kind of strategic shift to Asia. The goal appears to be to cultivate China’s large and small neighbors who may feel threatened by China’s more assertive presence throughout Asia, including spurious claims on remote islands.

So, it would appear that America will redeploy conventional military power into the Asian theatre. Great, except that we do not have much to redeploy. Last year Obama announced that a handful of US Marines will be stationed in Northern Australia. How will they view this in Beijing? They will look at this as a sorry (in fact almost laughable) mismatch between intent and capabilities.

A small Navy

The US has some forward deployed troops and assets in South Korea and Japan. But that’s about it. Force projection in Asia should be based on US naval power. But the US Navy, even though today’s modern vessels are much more capable, is down to 286 ships, the lowest number since 1916. (Yes this is 1916). This is one of the lowest numbers in modern history and lower than the 313 that the Pentagon indicated to be a bare minimum. And we could go on and on.

Better defense with less?

In the end, America could have both lower defense spending and a more effective force. It all depends on our ability to refocus on essential capabilities, as opposed to wasting money on obsolete force structures and weapons systems pushed by powerful domestic political constituencies.

Granted, all this is very complicated. This is all about trying to accurately estimate future threats. This is art and not science. That said, in an unpredictable world where America is likely to face sudden emergencies, more is better than less.

Defense spending determined by political constraints is a bad idea

But if we have to do this backward, creating a force on the basis of a given level of budgetary allocation determined by overarching spending constraints, as opposed to a defense budget driven by national security priorities, we will end up with the wrong type of force.

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