The epilogue of the sequester drama is nigh; the fiscal cliff looms, and once again the Pentagon has yielded to the temptation to describe a fantasy past and a fantasy future, in the hopes of avoiding the inevitable: a defense drawdown. Will they never learn?
For the Department of Defense, we would all be Katherine, the Shakespearean shrew, once broken. We should cry out, as Secretary Panetta asks us to: "sun it is not, when you say it is not; and the moon changes, even as your mind. What you will have it named, even that it is; and so it shall be still for Katherine."
The past, our last three drawdowns, were the worst of times, as Secretary Panetta said yesterday: "We have been determined to avoid the approach taken in past drawdowns, where, as I said, there were deep, across-the-board cuts that hollowed out the force and weakened our military, left the military demoralized and unready to carry out the missions assigned to it."
And yet, as Galileo suggested, it is not so. Two of the last three drawdowns were well managed and thought out. And even including the uneven one, America's military remained a globally capable and dominant force. After Korea, President Eisenhower drew down the ground force and brought the budget close to balanced. We still had a ground force, a navy, an air force, and military power that bestrode the world like a colossus. It was not hollow, it did not fall faint to the floor in pitiful sorrow. Morale was high and no adversary crossed the line.
After the debacle that was Vietnam, Secretary Laird and President Nixon devised a realistic strategy of 1.5 wars (down from over two), and transitioned the forces from conscript to volunteer, as they are today. The Army did, indeed, warn of hollowness; it was our least well-managed drawdown. But, setting aside the hysteria at the time of the Committee on the Present Danger, America retained the globe's most powerful military capability; the nation remained secure, and the forces were strengthened. Looking backward, historians have concluded both the threat and the weakness were exaggerated.
At the end of the Cold War, President Bush, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell developed the force planning algorithm (it was not a strategy) of two major regional contingencies, leading to the base force, and the third and last Cold War drawdown. In their tenure, the active duty force shrank by 500,000 troops and the budget by 25 percent in constant dollars.
The last stages of that drawdown took place during the first Clinton term. The OMB, led by Secretary Panetta, oversaw the budget planning for that drawdown and set the overall budget plan that ultimately led to two things: 1) the first sustained federal budget surplus since Eisenhower, and 2) the best managed defense drawdown we have seen. The ground force shrank, the Pentagon managed better, and the force that was in place used Saddam Hussein as a speed bump. It was neither hollow nor weak.
America's military was always, and remains, a globally dominant force, as it has been for the past sixty years.
If we are to believe the Pentagon, the future is worse than we have ever seen, full of fearful threats, "threats that are more complex, more dispersed, and in many ways, more dangerous." Terrorists coming at us from all sides, IEDs constantly aimed at our troops, a rising China, a Middle East in turmoil. Is fear the only basis on which we can sustain unprecedented defense budgets at a time of minimal threat?
We do not face any existential enemy. An overwhelming swath of the globe is at peace, from Latin America, to Europe, to Asia. And a "rising China" is far from a military threat, rather a broad relationship to be managed.
Where there is trouble -- the Middle East -- is in the region where we are drawing down militarily. Secretary Panetta said, "Even after the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, we have maintained a substantial military presence in the Middle East in order to deter aggression, respond to crisis, ensure regional stability in the face of historic unrest and the continuing threat from Iran."
Indeed those forces are there, but the ambition is an unachievable overreach for the military. Our forces are secondary, even tertiary, as an instrument for our statecraft in Syria, or Egypt, or Lebanon. They will not now, not in the future, invade Iran or Pakistan. Large or small, our military forces will not shape the region. The changes under way there are "far above our poor power to add or detract."
We can do so much better than this. Even a sequester does not mean the end of our military capability. Defense would lose 10 percent of its resources in this fiscal year -- serious, but not unprecedented and hardly the end of the world. Military personnel, retirees, and benefits would be exempt from the sequester. Contractors, who are hard at work on contracts already obligated, would anticipate that the next round of contracts might be 10 percent smaller than they hoped. Say, as Deputy Secretary Ash Carter did in August, from 29 F-35s to 25 in FY 2013. Service planners would have loose rein in the operating accounts to execute tradeoffs. The level of research and development effort would shrink by 10 percent, hardly a disaster.
This is not "doomsday," it's just a silly and arbitrary way to manage a drawdown. The Department knows it has not yet cut the projected defense budget; Secretary Panetta's "cuts" of $487 billion only reduced anticipated growth, leaving the defense budget growing with inflation over the next decade. If past is prologue, it will go down deeper. Would that the Pentagon engaged in less drama and began to plan sensibly for the drawdown everybody knows is realistic, safe, and already under way.
Gordon Adams tracks the budget and the national security establishment for FP.