FPI Bulletin: Risks and Reality in the Defense Budget

February 26, 2014

Previewing the latest defense budget on Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel quoted Henry L. Stimson’s October 1947 admonition that Americans “must act in the world as it is, and not in the world as we wish it were.”  Stimson’s warning first appeared in an essay where the former Secretary of War urged Americans to invest more attention and resources in our national defense—a test that the Pentagon’s fiscal year (FY) 2015 budget request fails.

In the real world, the growing dangers to America’s national security are stunning.  In particular:

  • Advances by the People’s Republic of China and others mean, according to Secretary Hagel, that “we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”
  • In Syria, we face a rogue regime that has repeatedly used chemical weapons, a failed state that has yielded safe havens for extremists, and the prospect that terrorists could seize chemical munitions or advanced conventional weapons.
  • Al-Qaeda and its affiliates threaten both our allies and the American homeland.  As Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper recently warned Congress, “There are some five different [al-Qaeda] franchises at least and 12 countries that this movement has morphed into.”
  • North Korea brandishes its nuclear arsenal, which the Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded likely includes missile-deliverable nuclear warheads.
  • Iran could likely build a nuclear warhead within weeks, and is within technical reach of missiles that could strike American shores.

This, to quote Stimson, is “the world as it is.”

In the face of these threats, the United States is preparing to enter a third year of forced cuts that will reduce the Defense Department’s budget by almost a trillion dollars this decade.  At $496 billion, the proposed sequestration-level defense budget for fiscal year 2015 is $45 billion below what President Obama had previously recommended for FY 2015 in April 2013—and a whopping $95 billion below what Obama had recommended for FY 2015 in February 2011.  As a result, the Pentagon’s base budget will fall from nearly 3.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) when President Obama entered office in 2009 to just 2.8 percent—roughly the same GDP percentage level prior to al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks.

To his credit, Secretary Hagel called for Congress to provide the Defense Department with at least $115 billion in partial relief from sequestration’s roughly $260 billion in forced cuts over the next five years.  Yet even if he can secure those additional funds, the Pentagon will still be forced to manage damage across three areas:

  • Readiness:  Last year’s shortfalls left the Army with only two active-duty brigade combat teams—out of 45—ready for deployment, postponed the Navy’s deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, and grounded more than 30 Air Force squadrons.  The only way Hagel believes the Pentagon can avoid similar disasters in fiscal year 2015 is for Congress to provide an extra $26 billion in addition to the budget request to pay for more training, upgrades, and facility repairs.
  • Modernization:  Under this budget, the Army will cancel most of its modernization programs, including the Ground Combat Vehicle.  The Air Force will curtail its procurement of MQ-9 Reaper aircraft.  The Marine Corps will end its Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) program, intended to get Marines safely ashore in future wars.
  • Force Structure:  The Army will fall from 520,000 active-duty soldiers to as few as 440,000, the lowest level since before the Second World War.  Similarly, the Marines, currently at 190,000 active-duty personnel, will fall to 182,000.  The Navy plans to temporarily mothball half of its 22-ship fleet of cruisers.  And the Air Force will slash the number of tactical air squadrons, and eliminate the entire fleet of A-10 “Warthog” jets and U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance planes.

These are the cuts the Pentagon faces if it gets the budget relief that it has asked for.  However, if full sequestration is imposed in the coming years, the Army and Marine Corps will be cut even further, the Navy will have to decommission an aircraft carrier, and the Air Force will retire multiple classes of aircraft.

Even if the Pentagon avoids the worst budgetary outcome, Secretary Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the cuts that they’re now proposing mean that “our future force will assume additional risks in certain areas.”  In fact, they used the word “risk” some 23 times over the course of their briefing on Monday.

The greatest of these risks is a consequence of the Obama administration’s decision two years ago that that the military “will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations” in future conflicts—a point that Secretary Hagel reiterated on Monday.  In fact, it is only by assuming away the possibility that the United States may ever have to fight in the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula that these cuts are tolerable.

This is a heroic assumption for military planners:  history repeatedly reminds us that, in matters of war and peace, the enemy always has a vote.  As Stimson eloquently observed in his essay, “We must never forget that while peace is a joint responsibility, the decision for war can be made by a single Power.”

Ignoring this dictum amounts to a bluff.  Even if Secretary Hagel can say that U.S. ground forces will still be capable of “decisively defeating aggression” in at least one future theater, the Pentagon has implicitly conceded that the Army and Marine Corps will no longer be prepared to win the peace afterwards.

This erosion of America’s security will only end when the President and Congress end sequestration for good, and adopt defense budgets driven by strategy and commensurate to the dangers we face.  Otherwise, we will settle for half-measures, as this budget proposes, that serve to ease rather than end our military’s decline.

For this insight, Secretary Hagel needed only turn to the Henry Stimson essay that he approvingly quotes—the essay in which the aging statesman admonished his fellow citizens at the dawn of the Cold War:

“Time after time in other years we have tried to solve our foreign problems with halfway measures, acting under the illusion that we could be partly in the world and partly irresponsible.  Time after time our Presidents and Secretaries of State have been restrained, by their own fears or by public opinion, from effective action.  It should by now be wholly clear that only failure, and its follower, war, can result from such efforts at cheap solution.”

So long as the President and Congress allow senseless defense cuts to be the law of the land, our military will be forced to sacrifice quality and quantity ever more in furtherance of our national leadership’s “cheap solution.”  Henry L. Stimson, a former Secretary of State and Secretary of War, spoke honestly to the American public about the dangerous consequences of such a choice in 1947.  We need both the Secretary of Defense and the Commander-in-Chief to do the same today.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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