The fiscal cliff is all the rage. The
lame-duck Congress is back and the tidal wave of pressure for a budget
agreement is almost overwhelming. The public discussion and the negotiations
are about taxes and entitlements, as anyone could have predicted. And, despite
a year of special interest lobbying, the defense budget is headed down further,
as a byproduct of those talks.
We're not talking about sequester; that drama
is almost over. We are talking about defense budgets that will go as much as
another $500 billion below the 10-year forecast Secretary Panetta offered last
February -- making the overall reduction, including his budget request, at
least $1 trillion. Real defense cuts, not a budget that keeps up with
inflation, the way Panetta wanted. And it is time to plan accordingly.
Think tanks are often the canary in the
coal mine when it comes to change in Washington, and their perspective on
defense has changed dramatically since the election. Over the past few weeks,
think tanks right, left, and center have issued reports that lay out the road
to a disciplined defense drawdown, in which they rethink strategy, military
force, weapons buying, and management. The reports come from the Stimson
Center/Peterson Foundation, the Center for
the Project on
the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, and, interestingly, the RAND Corporation. They agree on a surprising number of things, and all of them suggest
deep cuts are inevitable.
The Stimson report, endorsed by a wide
range of analysts (disclaimer: with a dissent, I am one of them), carefully
describes a series of budgetary options, including one that would increase
defense spending (however unrealistic) and one with additional cuts ranging
from $350 to $590 billion beyond Panetta's. The CAP report strongly advocates
$1 trillion in defense reductions (including the Panetta reductions). The PDA
report calls for an additional $560 billion in defense cuts. The CSIS report
(disclaimer: I am also part of its working group) starts with the assumption
that defense budgets (including war costs) will decline around 30 percent in
constant dollars (consistent with past drawdowns). As CSIS working group leader
(and former DOD official) Clark Murdock puts it: "DOD needs to accept the
likely reality that it will absorb a deeper reduction in defense spending and
plan accordingly." And the RAND study, while eschewing any support for defense
cuts, says it is realistic to think that defense budgets will go down $300-$500
billion below the Panetta estimate.
I think these estimates are actually on
the low side. The last defense drawdown, from 1985 to 1998, saw defense budgets
fall 36 percent in constant dollars. If the FY 1985 defense budget had been
allowed to grow with inflation over the same period, DOD would have had $1.6
trillion more in resources than it got. So there may still be a way to go and,
frankly, we won't know until we get there how deep the drawdown will actually
be. But when we look back, we will see it was very deep, indeed.
Readers can surf the reports at will. But
there are a number of strikingly consistent options they propose:
agree that the days of long-term stabilization operations, nation-building, and
insurgent-chasing (read: Iraq and Afghanistan) are over. The Panetta strategy
from January 2011 said this; all the reports endorse that view, and more.
(Though RAND, to be fair, does provide an option that has the United States
still chasing insurgents and instability in the Middle East through the next
of them agree that shrinking U.S. ground forces (Army and Marines) is the
easiest and most appropriate way to cope with the new national security
challenges in light of fewer resources. Some would have the overall military
shrink below 1 million troops, while others suggest 1.15-1.2 million (again,
except RAND's Middle East option).
of them would sharply reduce U.S. strategic nuclear forces, though none of them
appears to endorse my favorite option: a submarine-based monad. This means, for
many of them, between seven and nine nuclear-missile subs (down from the
current 14), smaller ICBM forces, and an end to nuclear bombers and fighters.
agree that a robust investment in defense research and development is a
suitable hedge against the future.
of them thinks China is a near-term military threat, which flies in the face of
the Washington cottage industry that seeks to make China the next major enemy. For
the most part, however, they hedge with a continued Pacific presence (RAND has
a Western Pacific option).
agree that terrorist organizations are not a strategic threat to the United
States and do not necessitate a large military force. Some, particularly CAP,
argue that non-military instruments -- diplomacy, law enforcement, training --
are key to dealing with terrorist organizations. But virtually all of them,
left or right, endorse special operations forces (which the PDA proposal would
grow) as the military arm of a counterterrorism strategy.
say cyber threats present a strategic challenge. However, none of them analyzes
this challenge in any depth, tells us why the military should lead the response,
or looks for even a moment at the risk of a rapidly-growing U.S. cyber-offense
all of them, from left to right, call for greater "burden-sharing" from U.S.
allies as a way of reducing the U.S. load.
These studies tell us that the drawdown
is now inevitable; with less money, we need to do some serious thinking. But
there is more road to travel here, and there are several issues the reports do
not discuss in much depth that will be a critical part of the drawdown.
First, the national security world is
still reluctant to think strategically in the broadest sense. What is America's
role in the world in the next decade and what part of the U.S. government needs
to implement that role? Most of these studies emerge from the defense stovepipe,
not the diplomatic, intelligence, or foreign assistance worlds. As a result, their
analysis is still locked into a military perspective on our national security
challenges. Only the CAP study deliberately looks at what we should do with our
civilian diplomatic and assistance capabilities. Halting nuclear and biological
weapons proliferation and dealing with terrorists are not predominantly
Second, most of these reports ignore the
relative decline of U.S. power and the impact of military operations on the country's
reputation. Locked, as some are, in the defense universe, they are searching
for ways to reassert U.S. leadership and to "shape" the security universe in a
way that advances U.S. interests. Even if the money is not there to dominate, they
do not question our capacity to be the world's hegemon. The default position is
that our allies must share the defense burden more than they do, as measured by
the share of GDP they spend on defense. This is a dodge, not a policy. There is
no unanimity among U.S. allies on what the burdens are, nor agreement on
whether military forces are the appropriate way to deal with those burdens. And
the share of GDP dedicated to defense does not help anyone answer those
Third, U.S. strategic analysts are still
too fascinated with using the military to defend something they call the "global
commons." We gotta be out there
patrolling it, or who knows what terrible things will happen. But civilian
international institutions and laws govern the use of air, sea, and space. And cyber
is largely a private enterprise, not subject to military control and badly in
need of international agreements like the other three. If you hear the phrase
"global commons," reach for your gun...or perhaps your laptop.
Fourth, not all of the reports deal with
the more basic management challenge at DOD. The reason we spend too much on
defense doesn't have to do with capabilities; it has to do with DOD's failure
to discipline its out-of-control acquisition system, a back office that is much
larger than necessary, and a pay-and-benefits system that is eating the defense
budget. The Stimson study is an exception. It provides options for between $200
and $400 billion in savings from management and personnel actions, which, it
argues, could reduce the need for force structure and hardware reductions, but
it does not provide much detail. The CSIS report also notes the possibilities
for savings on the management side. And RAND, which has done good work in the
past on compensation and benefits, gives lip service to the personnel issues. But,
frankly, unless DOD and Congress are willing to reduce overhead and force
savings, little will be accomplished; none of the reports calls for those kinds
Fifth, the new mantra for coping with
less is "building partner capacity." It is the default position for strategists
who can see that large-scale U.S. military deployments overseas are
counter-productive, producing a "blowback" that runs counter to U.S. interests.
Most of these reports get right on board, calling for significant DOD support
for training, equipping, advising, and strengthening the security forces and
institutions of other countries.
The risk of expanding these programs is
three-fold: the military does not do them well, as Iraq and Afghanistan
testify, especially the farther the mission strays from pure military training
and into governance issues. Second, giving DOD this "governance" mission
further weakens the civilian tools in our national security toolkit. And,
third, we have invested too much history in arguing that the militaries of
other countries should stay in their barracks to now argue that they should be
deeply entrenched in governance, development, and reconstruction. (For more on
this, see the report I co-authored
with Becky Williams for Stimson last year.)
are inevitable in such reports; they reflect the modus operandi and interests
of the organizations that produce them. But they tell those whose heads are
buried deep in the sand of "business as usual" that it is time to wake up and
pay attention. As New York Times
writer Bill Keller put
it, we have "a historic opportunity to push the ‘Refresh' button on our
national security." It is time to get down to the kind of planning the reports
recommend, for the defense budget is most surely coming down.