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Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. The Afghanistan war continues, but it is clear that the Obama administration will soon find a way to bring it to a close, as well. With the major wars coming to an end, the American military will face increasing fiscal pressure. The United States, crippled by deficits and set to embark on massive spending in support of the Obama-Pelosi program, simply cannot afford to maintain the military it already possesses.
While America retains enough residual combat units to keep it at the top of the world’s lists of military powers, certain programs are already feeling the pinch. F-22 production was ended early, planned Army vehicle replacements have been brought into question, building of the new littoral combat ships delayed and proposed replacements for the Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines rejected as too expensive. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has mused publicly about reducing the U.S. Navy by one aircraft carrier (the Navy made it clear that they could not accomplish their assigned tasks with less than 11 vessels). Regardless, in the words of Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter, since 9/11, the U.S. military has simply “thrown” money at any program that faced problems. That era is ending.
While the coming austerity will no doubt reduce America’s overall combat power and infuriate hawkish lawmakers and members of the armed forces and defense industries, the United States will remain powerful enough to defend itself. But what of the Free World? Logically, as defense dollars are stretched further, priority will go to securing the American interests first and foremost. That will often overlap with the needs of its allies, but not always. Nations around the world have been able to take American security guarantees for granted for three generations now. What will they do without it?
By all indications so far, defense spending is about to become unpopular the world over. Nowhere is this clearer than America’s primary ally in overseas conflicts, the United Kingdom. The kind of deep cuts to British defense spending being discussed have already led to some bizarre speculation, including a rumor that France and the U.K. were discussing the sharing of aircraft carriers. This strange proposal is made stranger by the fact that the two nations, despite their current alliance, spent centuries competing with each other … on the high seas. The idea of them pooling major warships is akin to the proverbial dogs and cats sleeping together.
Both sides quickly dismissed the rumors, but even if the sharing proposals never got beyond the discussion phase, it’s illustrative of how desperate the British are to get spending under control. The British economy is a mess and government outlays desperately need to be slashed. But the cuts to the military, including perhaps mothballing an aircraft carrier and halving the planned order of F-35 jets as well as some doubt being expressed as to the viability of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, present the specter of a Great Britain completely giving up on being a great power and turning inwards to battle deficit demons instead. The loss of such a military power would be a very grim sign for the Western world’s declining importance.
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