“Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we must think.” Winston Churchill said that. Or maybe it was the Nobel-winning physicist Ernest Rutherford. Whatever its provenance, the quip provides a good starting point for discussing the future of American military spending. The U.S. has not, of course, “run out of money” for troops and tanks. Instead, President Obama and Congress have decided that in light of yawning deficits and the end of twin decade-long wars, the nation needs to spend smarter. The administration earlier this year laid out a deficit-conscious defense strategy. It included a $525 billion budget request for fiscal 2013, excluding war costs. The plan trimmed the Defense Department’s projected spending increases over the next decade by $487 billion.
Slowing the rate of growth of military spending is not the same as cutting it. The Obama plan, which Republicans in Congress agreed to, provides for future year spending increases of 1.7 percent in 2014 and 2.2 percent in 2015. Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security has crunched the bigger numbers: For the period from 2013 to 2022, Obama would allocate a total of $5.75 trillion to defense. The president spelled out a sensible, if vague, three-part strategy that presumably he’ll now pursue in his second term:
• Maintain superiority. Traditionally, civilian and military leaders have boasted of being able to win two major regional conflicts (MRCs) simultaneously. Military wonks, though, “have long debated whether this standard was anything more than a figment of DoD’s imagination used to justify large defense budgets,” Sharp writes in a new paper published in the Journal of International Affairs. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have intensified these doubts.” Obama’s plan doesn’t abandon the two-MRC standard, but it revises it to “win-spoil.” That means having the ability to win one comprehensive campaign while spoiling a second adversary’s ambitions with a more-tailored intervention, such as the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. This allows the slimming of ground forces such as those needed to fight simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Army, the Obama plan would reduce active-duty troops from 562,000 to 490,000, approximating pre-Sept. 11 head counts. Some of these reductions are possible because of technology, such as the use of unmanned drones for battlefield surveillance.
• Pivot to Asia. While the U.S. has obsessed about the Middle East, China has modernized its military and expanded its ambition to dominate economically vital sea lanes. In response, Obama has begun to shift naval and other resources to the Asia-Pacific theater with the goal of maintaining a balance of power and preventing the Chinese from cowing allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore. The Pentagon has announced plans to bolster weapon systems aimed at denying China (and Iran) the ability to block U.S. access to their regions. These include new attack submarines, improved missile defenses, and cyberweapons.
• Scale back in Europe. Without abandoning NATO allies, the U.S. has an opportunity to economize in the absence of the threat of a Russian invasion. To strengthen partnerships with allies not only in Europe but also in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, the U.S. increasingly will rely on joint training exercises and special operations. The idea is to stay engaged in a more flexible way.
Here’s the catch: Obama can’t simply march ahead with this plan unless he and Congress undo the across-the-board “sequestration” set to take effect automatically in January. Those cuts would roughly double the Obama reductions for the next decade. Assuming Washington does pull back from the fiscal cliff, there’s another hazard: The many lawmakers who have military contractors or bases in their districts will fight to unravel the military budget deal the previous Congress struck with Obama.
Even some of the president’s political allies are readying for that battle. United Autoworkers President Bob King released an open letter the day before the election, warning that proposed cuts to the M1 Abrams tank program “would result in the loss of thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs across the United States.” On the Republican side, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (Calif.) and Senators Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.) have signaled for months that they plan to resist any attempt to take a big chunk out of the Pentagon budget.
The coming arguments about how much to put in the Pentagon’s pocketbook obscure more difficult, and potentially costly, strategic questions that don’t have a simple line in the budget. If partners in Europe and Asia won’t step up to new challenges, the burdens on a cash-strapped U.S. will grow. Spending alone will not defuse the threatening impulses of Iran or North Korea. In other words, now we must think