I think we can all agree that the single most fundamental duty of government is to provide for the national defense, from which all else flows. It is a testament to the success of our military that the continental United States has not suffered a land war since the one we inflicted upon ourselves 150 years ago. That statement in no way minimizes the sacrifices of those who served at Pearl Harbor – our local annual beacon tradition does honor to those brave souls, here and departed. Further, the 9/11 attacks were not the doing of a nation-state, and responsibility for them comes to rest elsewhere.
Since the development of the so-called “military-industrial complex” (Ike’s term – see Raucous Caucus 4, here: Web Link), the Pentagon and the “vast permanent armaments industry” (also Ike) have worked to both defend the nation, and to ensure that they together escape serious budget scrutiny. A couple of points follow from there, and are important to keep in-mind as the country struggles to regain its budget equilibrium. On the one hand, we need to be mindful of the jobs impact of sudden changes to the DoD budget: it has been a kind of permanent stimulus to the economy, as those defense contractors employ about one million Americans (as I’ve noted elsewhere, the Reagan Recovery was really a Keynesian-style stimulus founded on a defense build-up). On the other hand, in this new era of limitations, serious budget scrutiny is called-for across-the-board.
The plain fact is that the US currently spends more on so-called defense than the rest of the world, combined. Combined. And most of those other countries are our allies, some more-so, some less. Uncle Sam has been giving friend-and-foe alike a very free ride by means of our ongoing strategic policy of Global Engagement. The world is safe for commerce and culture precisely because of the burden borne disproportionately by us, the US taxpayers. And in this new age of austerity and limitations, we need to ask ourselves: how much of this burden can we continue to afford?
In anticipation of this inquiry, defense-oriented Think Tanks have been hard at work, developing proposals for consideration at a new time when “budget drives policy” in important ways, rather than the traditional reverse approach. I’ll offer one such example, which illustrates the kind of careful analysis of options and their implications that we citizens will need to understand, and undertake. The full document, titled: Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity, a publication of the mainstream Center for a New American Security, can be found here: Web Link
As the authors note, the Global Engagement policy has remained remarkably consistent – indeed, nearly sacrosanct – as the world has evolved away from cold war geopolitics, and threats have changed dramatically. They call for a rethinking of that strategy, giving highest priority to the western Pacific/East and South Asia; continuing emphasis on the Middle East, especially to contain hostile governments and dismantle terrorist networks; Europe should receive only tertiary attention, as its nations can be called-upon to assume a greater share of the current US burden, and finally Africa and Latin America, where attention should be limited to deterring and addressing ad hoc threats to specific American interests. They also call for an over-arching global objective of limiting nuclear proliferation.
They are guided by the following general principles: they would promote naval and air forces in preference to ground troops capabilities, they call for dramatically increasing the interdependence of the Services (like Army choppers deploying from Navy carriers), they would scrap “exquisitely” targeted weapons of limited general utility, and emphasize R&D to produce a next generation of weaponry, especially that which can be remotely-controlled.
Thus armed with those principles and priorities, they develop four strategic options that relate to different levels of funding cuts over the next decade. Each represents a more limited capability to project American power elsewhere in the world, in return for substantial savings to the federal Budget. Risks to American interests rise accordingly, but that’s the point: in a new world of limits, ‘no-risk’ is no longer an option.
Scenario One, Reposition and Reset: 10-year savings $383 billion
Scenario Two, Constrained Global Presence: 10-year savings $501 billion
Scenario Three, Selective Leverage: 10-year savings $665 billion
Scenario Four, Focused Economy of Force: 10-year savings $822 billion
The first option above involves “modest and acceptable” risk, as most capabilities and weapons systems are retained. The second involves “significant, acceptable” risk, as greater reliance is placed on expeditionary forces that require time to deploy into remote regions of need. The third choice elevates the authors’ perceived risk to “high,” in that a reduced number of resources would limit our ability to overwhelm and rapidly defeat an enemy. The armed forces’ capacity to undertake humanitarian disaster assistance would also be significantly reduced. Finally, Scenario Four entails “very high” risk to America’s ability to unilaterally act to rapidly defeat enemies in ground combat. It would require dramatically more collaboration with allies (and contribution from them – can I get an ‘Amen’ to that?), and skillful diplomacy to secure American interests while carrying a less terrifyingly large “stick.” It’s important to note that all of these risk levels relate to engagements elsewhere – each secures the homeland, per se, adequately. They also note that having fewer toys may mean that the temptation to play with them is correspondingly reduced.
Interjecting personal experience in other large institutions (e.g., Fortune 50 companies), I suspect that the savings above are under-stated. It is remarkable how creative our species can become when it has to be. Anyone who has survived multiple downsizings understands that point. Our defense establishment, for all its success, is inefficient enough to have prompted DoD Secretary Rumsfeld to express chagrin that so many capable and patriotic people could have created such a mess. I also believe that it’s time for our friends around the globe to ante-up. In sum, this seems like a good time for the Pentagon to participate in our national exercise in rethinking what we can afford.
BTW, there’s still time to get in and play the Fiscal Cliff-diving Game. Check last week’s RC for details!