We live in oxymoronic times. Everyone recognizes the need for a streamlined, more efficient Pentagon. Yet Congress won't let the Department of Defense close another base or increase the copayments military families make for their very generous health insurance plans. Continuing resolutions and sequestration prevent weapons makers from doing a deal with the Pentagon that sticks.
The defense budget is in free fall by some measures, facing $492 billion in possible sequester cuts over nine years, or roughly $55 billion annually. These come on top of earlier cuts by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and in addition to huge reductions in war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the U.S. military budget still totals $600 billion. That is 40 percent of what the entire world spends on defense, and substantially more than the Cold War average in inflation-adjusted terms.
President Obama wants to do nation-building at home, end the country's wars and avoid involvement in Syria. Yet he is also committed to “rebalancing” the military to put greater emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region and preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, he still maintains 50,000 troops in Afghanistan, nearly double than when he took office.
The secretary of defense said last year that sequestration would be catastrophic for the military, yet half a year into sequestration the sky has not fallen. The sequester, which went into effect in March, has not yet fundamentally jeopardized our national security or the state of our armed forces, and some of the $40 billion in defense cuts in 2013 reflected reasonable pruning.
But other savings will be far more perilous. Dramatically reducing training for many military units, as was done this summer, is tolerable — but only for a short period. It would be debilitating if this continued, particularly to young troops who have never had intensive training.
There are also many faux savings in the Pentagon budget. Prominent in this category are deferred overhauls of major weaponry and deferred maintenance at bases. In fact, the United States will probably have to pay more to do this down the road than it would cost to take care of it now.
Then there are savings that cause personal hardship. Furloughs of civilian government employees top this list, although those were reduced in August from 11 days to six. Hiring freezes, meanwhile, prevent a new generation of young Americans from serving their country as they exit college.
Beyond the sequester and the recent government shutdown, the military faces fundamental long-term questions. How large should the defense budget be, and what national security strategy should it serve?
I believe the president has correctly identified the three most important missions for America’s armed forces in today’s world and the years ahead:
– Keeping the peace among the great powers, specifically by backing up the Asia-Pacific “rebalancing” policy announced halfway through his first term
– Preventing, where possible, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, most importantly nuclear weapons
- Continuing to check al Qaeda and other terrorist groups throughout the broader Middle East, including parts of North Africa and South Asia
Other missions can be important too, though less so. For example, while I favor a more activist U.S. policy in Syria, I would acknowledge that it is a less crucial mission than the first three priorities. (That said, there are elements of counterterrorism in any Syria policy, so sometimes it is not so easy to know which missions are really “wars of choice,” to use the memorable phrase of Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.)
Given such core requirements, but also such uncertainties, how do we create a defense strategy that the country can unite behind? Turning such broad principles into specific military capabilities requires not just military analysis but political and historical judgment. There is no simple answer to the question of “how much is enough.” But I would volunteer a few key principles:
– If we are going to focus more on the Asia-Pacific region and thereby increase the odds that China’s rise will be peaceful, we cannot afford to substantially cut forces there.
- While an old-fashioned “two war” capability of the Desert Storm type is perhaps no longer necessary, we do need an Air Force and Navy that can uphold the Asia-Pacific rebalance while responding to simultaneous crises in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. These two services still need a two-theater capability of some sort.
- We also need ground forces that can robustly carry out a single major war to ensure solid deterrence in Korea and elsewhere while participating in one or two prolonged multilateral stabilization missions (like the one we are supposed to anchor in Afghanistan after 2014).
– Needless to say, we need to take care of our men and women in uniform, and also continue to develop technology in a way that preserves America’s preeminence in traditional military realms as well as in cyber, space, robotic and other newer domains.
If sequester-size cuts are continued, it will not be possible to uphold all of these requirements. But relative to where forces and budgets are today, there is still room to cut defense. Consider some ideas:
- The size of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps could be reduced 5 to 10 percent, below 1990s levels (to about 450,000 soldiers and 160,000 Marines). Current plans are to keep the size of these forces slightly above those 1990s levels.
- The Navy can decrease by a small percentage, too, even though it is hardly huge today. It could do so by employing innovative approaches such as “sea swap,” in which some crews are rotated via airplane while ships remain at sea for longer deployments.
– Purchases of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a good but expensive plane, could be scaled back by roughly half from the current target of nearly 2,500. We can buy cheaper planes and unmanned aircraft to replace the other half of our aging fighter fleet.
– Military compensation could be reformed and streamlined as well, despite Congress’ recent reluctance to go along with even the minor changes that the Obama administration proposed last year. For example, in addition to increasing health insurance premiums modestly, military pensions might be reformed. We could reduce payments to working-age military retirees having 20 years or more of service and introduce a 401(k)-style plan for those who never reach 20 years. (These people currently receive no pension at all.)
- A related idea could also save substantial sums, but it would require agreement from allies. Today, the United States relies almost exclusively on aircraft carriers, each carrying about 72 aircraft, to have short-range fighters in position for possible conflict with Iran. Over the past decade, land-based combat jets in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq have largely returned to the United States. By seeking two or more places to station Air Force combat jets continuously in Persian Gulf states, the United States could cut one or two carrier battle groups from its fleet.
There are many other options to save defense dollars. They include scaling back purchases of the Littoral Combat Ship (a class of relatively small vessels designed for close-to-shore operations), carrying out another round of base closures, privatizing more equipment repair, and using best practices in logistics. Savings from these ideas could approach $200 billion to $250 billion, assuming they could be achieved over likely congressional and allied skepticism.
To conclude, let’s simplify. Forget all the talk of 10-year savings — an artificial and arbitrary period for budgeting, anyway. Just think about the steady-state annual national defense budget — what we spend on the military each year, and its nuclear weapons from the Department of Energy, too.
Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we spent about $400 billion on defense in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars. The Cold War average had been about $475 billion. At the peak of our recent wars, the budget exceeded $700 billion a year. Today, it is about $600 billion and headed to $500 billion or so if sequestration stays in effect. My proposal would keep it at about $525 billion, which would be less than 3 percent of projected GDP by 2015.
How do these numbers stack up internationally? Overall, quite well. Not only does the United States account for 40 percent of all global military spending, but when our allies and other close security partners are included, that figure rises to some 75 percent. China’s defense budget, by comparison, is estimated now at $150 billion to $200 billion a year and is doubling every eight to 10 years. By 2020, the United States would still be outspending China under my plan and even under sequester levels, but the gap would be closing. (Of course, low-budget armed forces can still give the United States a whale of trouble — just think of the Iraqi insurgency, the Taliban or al Qaeda. Their budgets have been in the hundreds of millions each year, at most.)
There is no perfect answer to the question of how much is enough. But we do know that cutting quickly and indiscriminately is dangerous to the internal health of our own armed forces and to the stability of the international system. It is time to slow down, think and plan more carefully. The United States can no longer afford a military that is superior through sheer bulk. A decade from now, the armed forces must be smarter, leaner and quick to adjust to changing threats.
Yet in becoming leaner and smarter, it is important not to overdo it. We must avoid the complacent belief that the United States can shrink its military rapidly and with impunity, counting on a new world order or new technology to keep us safe in the future. It’s worth keeping in mind an adage that is often cited and just as often ignored: Weakness invites war, strength prevents it.Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Healing the Wounded Giant: Maintaining Military Preeminence While Cutting the Defense Budget. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.