As the sequestration guillotine hangs over the Pentagon, Congress wants to know what the administration’s plan is in the event that a deal isn’t struck to avert a staggering $500 billion in automatic spending cuts to the U.S. military. These cuts, it pays to recall, would come in addition to the $487 billion the Pentagon has already carved from its spending plans over the next 10 years. The cuts would be disastrous, and making such cuts without any sort of plan or roadmap would compound disaster with irresponsibility. Could it be that the president may actually want the Pentagon’s budget to be cut by another $500 billion—or put another way, to shrink over the next decade by nearly $1 trillion?
Before scoffing at that possibility, recall that the Pentagon was the first place President Obama turned when the debt crisis emerged as a political issue. “We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world,” Obama said in 2011.
Recall, too, that the president halted F-22 production at 187 planes, far short of the planned 381; cut the nation’s strategic nuclear forces by 30 percent and has floated proposals to cut the deterrent arsenal to as low as 300 warheads (about the size of China’s); withdrew from Iraq, over the objections of his top commanders and diplomats; under-resourced Afghanistan, then undercut the mission he gave his commanders by announcing a withdrawal deadline; handcuffed U.S. foreign policy to the lowest-common-denominator approach approved by Moscow; and famously “led from behind” in Libya, letting America’s oldest, closest allies in NATO know that the scope, scale and duration of America’s involvement would be limited. (Early in the war, the allies were stunningly told that the availability of essential U.S. strike aircraft “expires on Monday.”)
Channeling Newt Gingrich during the mid-1990s debates over baseline budgeting and Medicare growth, Obama has assured us that his Pentagon cuts aren’t really cuts. “Over the next 10 years,” he said in January, “the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow.” That’s a fair point: Slower growth is not a cut. Budget hawks and small-government types have been making that case for 40 years. But apparently that logic doesn’t apply to Washington’s overflowing smorgasbord of social programs (a subject for another essay).
Of course, “the fact of the matter” is that holding the Pentagon’s budget growth below the inflation rate, as the president plans, means fewer weapons systems, fewer troops, slower recapitalization—and more risk. This is where that fundamental review of America’s role in the world comes into focus.
To meet the president’s targets, the Navy has been ordered to cut the number of surface combatants from 85 ships to 78, stretch the “build time” of new aircraft carriers from five to seven years, and had to seek a special congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while the USS Gerald Ford is built and other flattops are retired or refurbished. Pressed by budget-cutters, the Air Force plans to reduce its fleet by 286 planes. The active-duty Army will be cut from 570,000 soldiers to 490,000; the Marines from 202,000 to 182,000. The administration has slashed $810 million from the Missile Defense Agency, cut spending on ground-based missile defense by 22 percent and reduced the number of warships to be retrofitted with missile-defense capabilities by seven. A DOD report on weapons-acquisition plans for 2013 reveals spending cuts in combat drones, F-35 fighter-bombers, F/A-18 fighter-bombers, V-22 heli-planes, UH-60 helicopters, KC-46 refuelers, M-1 tank upgrades, Stryker armored vehicles, aircraft carriers, submarines, and a number of satellites and space-based sensors. Remember, all of this is before sequestration.
For perspective, compare these numbers with some from the not-too-distant past. In 1991, the total active-duty force was 2 million; today, it’s hovering around 1.3 million—and falling. In 1991, the U.S. deployed 15 aircraft carriers, some 300 bombers and nearly 4,000 fighters; today, the U.S. deploys 10 carriers, 162 bombers and roughly 2,000 fighters. At the height of the Reagan buildup, the Navy boasted 587 ships. The size of today’s fleet is 285 ships. Current recapitalization rates will not keep up with plans to retire ships, leading to “a Navy of 240-250 ships at best,” according to former Navy Secretary John Lehman.
Although the defense budget grew by $300 billion in the decade after 9/11, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments notes that just 16 percent of that increase was earmarked for modernization—and that a dozen new weapons systems were terminated and many systems had their numbers cut below end-strength goals (e.g., the F-22). “The aggregate effect is that a significant portion of DOD’s investment in modernization over the past decade did not result in force modernization.”
To get a sense of the modernization crisis, consider that the Air Force now plans to keep flying B-52 bombers through 2040. The first B-52 took to the skies in 1954. The CH-47 helicopter celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and the Army plans to deploy the heavy-lift chopper past 2040.
This benign neglect of the military might make sense if peace were breaking out. But we know the very opposite to be true. America is still at war in Afghanistan. Terrorist networks like al-Qaeda still have the ability to strike and are increasing their influence in the Horn of Africa and in Yemen. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is less stable and more paranoid than ever, as is nuclear-armed North Korea. Iran is racing ahead with its own nuclear-weapons program and threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Arab Spring revolution has triggered a civil war in Syria. What happens if/when Assad starts firing off chemical weapons? What if the revolution spreads to the oil-rich Arab monarchies? And what path will the new governments in Egypt and Libya ultimately choose?
These, it could be argued, are not even our principal worries. As the U.S. declaws itself, China is boosting military spending by 11 percent this year, capping double-digit increases in nine of the past 10 years.
According to the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power, Beijing is pouring increasing sums into advanced cruise missiles, conventional ballistic missiles, anti-ship missiles, counter-space weapons, cyberspace capabilities, upgrades to its bomber fleet, 79 surface combatants and 50 submarines. These assets are “designed to enable anti-access/area-denial missions.” In other words, their mission is to deter and if necessary destroy the Pacific fleet.
Similarly, Russia—in the midst of a planned 65-percent increase in military spending—is making claims in the Arctic, occupying parts of Georgia, blocking international action in Iran, providing arms and cover to Syria, buzzing North American airspace, and carrying out provocative maneuvers and weapons deployments in areas bordering NATO states. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has unveiled plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and 28 new subs—all in the next 10 years.
So, while Beijing rapidly upgrades to a 21st-century military and Russia reloads, the Army and Marines will make do with older tanks and fewer troops; the Navy will try to stretch a 10-carrier fleet to do the work of 12 carriers; and the Air Force will get smaller and older. In fact, if the sequestration guillotine falls, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey warns of a Pentagon with “fewer options and a lot less capacity,” adding “we wouldn’t be the global power that we know ourselves to be today.”
Maybe that’s by design. It seems a smaller military may serve a larger objective for the president—namely an America that is less assertive; an America less able to act independently, and hence more deferent to and dependent on the UN; an America with fewer military resources, a shorter reach, slower reflexes and a smaller global role.
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