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.
If they do choose to go ahead with such cutbacks, they would not be alone. France cut spending two years ago, and has announced another round of spending reductions. The German armed forces are facing massive cuts, including an end to mandatory military service, the mothballing of naval vessels and warplanes and reduced purchases of new fighter jets and transport aircraft. Plans to purchase F-35 fighters are being strenuously attacked by Canadian opposition parties and might not survive the next election. Proposed budget trimming last spring also prompted a Canadian admiral to send out a notice to his commanders (quickly leaked to the press, as was no doubt intended) saying that in order to meet the demands of his reduced budget, the Canadian Navy was essentially going to be deactivated en masse. The government, embarrassed, reversed their stance, and the fleet lived another day.
All of these countries have, to varying degrees, relied upon the enormous American military for their own protection, allowing them to pursue the kind of social program spending that cannot be done in combination with large military outlays. They are blessed to have free societies in safe areas of the world, where they can likely get away with their defense cutbacks without any adverse effects.
That is not universally the case, however, as evidenced by the recent behavior of Japan and South Korea. Both of those nations maintain large, advanced militaries, largely because of the dual concerns over North Korean instability and the rising might of China. Even so, both of these Asian democracies had in recent years begun to feel as though they were capable of looking after their own interests without the help of the United States. Japan was particularly keen to see Yankee go home, but quickly backtracked once the North Koreans began loudly rattling their sabers. The South Koreans, likewise, walked away from a planned transfer of command of their own country from the current American military command to a local one, with U.S. forces remaining in a reduced supporting role. The United States has been gracious enough to keep its forces available to its long-time allies, but one cannot help but wonder … what if the crisis of the last several months had taken place ten years from now? Would America have been able to help even if it wanted to?
All around the Free World, bankrupt governments are looking for ways to cut spending, and from Washington to London, and in Paris, Ottawa and Berlin, their eyes are landing on their own defense capabilities. Before they cut too deeply, however, they should ask themselves one thing. In today’s world, is it safe to leave yourself defenseless? After all, America might soon be too busy paying its own bills to worry too much if Russia or China decide to throw their weight around against their largely defenseless Western neighbors. Who, in the years ahead, will stand for freedom?
Perhaps the better question is, after two generations of costly social engineering projects and welfare-state handouts, who can afford to?
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected].