Budget battles reshape debate about military strategy

Cuts to military spending are inevitable, but the prospect is raising a question of survivability: Can the military defend the nation and its interests with less money, or are we doomed to lose World War III?

The answer depends on who you ask and how the Defense Department executes its military strategy.

Although there are a wealth of dire predictions — including from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has used “doomsday” in public speeches more than once — others say spending reductions have traditionally followed wars. In this case, that would mean spending less on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as they draw down.

If members of the congressional supercommittee charged with cutting more than $1 trillion from the federal budget fail to come to an agreement and sweeping across-the-board cuts kick in, the situation will, by all accounts, be devastating for a military already worn thin by a decade at war.

Even as top Defense Department officials warn Congress against cutting too much from their budget, there is furious debate among experts on what the ramifications might be. In the process, the conversation is shifting away from which major weapons systems to cancel and toward re-evaluating the military’s mission.

“We need a new strategy first,” said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “I think we need to switch from trying to be a global hegemon to offshore balancing, which is traditionally what we had.... Eisenhower cut spending after Korea, Nixon cut spending after Vietnam. As we get out of Iraq and draw down in Afghanistan, we have another opportunity.”

At the top of the list of changes is the way our military is structured and used.

“I think we can rethink what we ask our military to do to achieve substantial savings without increasing the risk to the United States or unfairly burdening our troops,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “We should be more reticent to use military force, especially when our vital interests are not at stake. A leaner, more focused military can no longer be in the business of defending other countries that [can] defend themselves.”

A faulty premise?

But some insiders reject the notion that we are spending too much on defense.

"Cutting defense to make the economy healthier is actually committing suicide,” said James Carafano, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. “Great powers don’t rot from without; they don’t spend themselves into defeat. Great powers rot from within. It’s not the costs of defending themselves and their interests that defeats them. It’s when they stop generating the wealth and the will to protect themselves that they collapse.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned that the changing nature of threats doesn’t diminish the dangers against which the United States must defend itself. Although he acknowledged that budget cuts are inevitable, he said they must be done with great care.

“That the United States spends a lot more on its defense than other nations is not necessarily a bad thing,” O’Hanlon wrote in a Washington Post editorial. “American military excellence — in people, training and equipment — is one of the reasons that Middle East oil continues to flow despite Iran’s malevolent intentions and that China continues to prefer a peaceful rise to a violent one. While saving money and becoming more efficient are important, I’d like to keep American military pre-eminence largely as it is.”

Still, at least one defense expert insists that a balance can be struck between competing needs.

“The single most important mission we have, as has been since the dawn of the Nuclear Age, is deterrence,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute. We should do “nothing that diminishes the credibility of our nuclear deterrent triad of submarines, missiles and bombers. After that, I would say this is mainly about counterterrorism in the near term. As long as we can effectively execute the global terror campaign, you’re pretty much free to do what you want with the rest of the budget.”

Reader comments

Wed, Oct 26, 2011 Dances with Difficulty Flyover Country

One thing has been true going back thousands of years, if you don't support your own military you will soon find yourself supporting some other country's military.

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 earth

Wow the person that said I don’t seem to get it sure projected a lot of his own baggage onto the comment. Most of the baggage seems to be FOX FUD parroted with little insight. Lets take my ex neighbors for an example. Their house has been foreclosed on. They couldn’t obtain sufficient work to make the payments AND support their habit of football and video games on a giant TV. Bad choices there but consumerism is what it is, the driver of capitalism. The people that have been viewing the house walk away after seeing the inch of water on the floor from heavy rain and a leaking roof. The folks that lived there didn’t seal their roof for over eight years but probably got relatively high scores on whatever video game they played. What does this have to do with the military budget? If we ignore the terrible decisions for a moment to youthful stupidity and excessive marketing and ask instead why they didn’t spend more time working we find the stagflation that occurs after every republican administration’s borrow and militarize bubble. Now I can’t nanny them into taking care of their house. I can’t force them to pay their mortgage instead of spending a hundredth of that one time on self aggrandizement while waiting for a call from their contractor employer. But I can believe that if they spent more time working they might value their own lives more. However, sitting on their buts polarizes them in the other direction.

We did not get out of the last depression, and lets not self delude ourselves, it’s a depression caused partially by tripled fuel costs and standard post militarization stagflation, by spending even more on the military. We got out of it by putting people inside the US to work with the ABC’s. That can’t be done with the excessive expenditures on pointless foreign adventurism that only makes the daddy warbucks richer. Trickle (strikeout) down (/strikeout) economics creates a trickle economy. The generous man is generous to his neighbors and lives in a prosperous community thereby while the miser impoverises himself selling nothing to impoverished neighbors. Stop parroting the FOX FUD and think for yourself. You are watching too much political marketing on the TV. And insulting others by projecting your thoughtless FOX FUD on them just makes you look clueless.

Mon, Oct 24, 2011

'At the top of the list of changes is the way our military is structured and used.' The one significant sentence, and they blow right past it. US Gov and Congress need to do what they did after WWII, and do a clean-sheet-of-paper redesign of DoD mission and structure. Get rid of all the duplication and interservice turf rivalry, and a lot of the budget issues would take care of themselves. Let them keep their seperate uniforms for tradition's sake, but the C&C structure and all the back-office functions and support should have been merged and rationalized decades ago.

Mon, Oct 24, 2011

"earth" does not seem to get it. The military budget is not the biggest anymore - that belongs our social services, the organizations that want to pay people to be unproductive and babysit the rest of us. The so-called "serfs" are better off in this country than the average person in the rest of the world. For instance how many of these "serfs" in the US have TV's, cell phones, cars, computer games, and living in homes with heat, electricity, and running water? If our schools are being shut down, just how many kids in this country have no school to go to? Our manufacturing base is down not because of our military spending, but all these regulations and social programs that make it too expensive to make much of anything and give many people an incentive not to work at the wages these businesses have to pay to be competative due to the massive regulations and taxes. The victims of terror are due to terrorism and the tyrany associated with them. The number of innocent people killed on the sidelines during our actions are miscule compared to not only those from terrorism, but also those who likely would be if we did not take those actions. This anti-US and anti-capitalism attitude is not only dishonest, but it is the main culprit to the problems in this country. I am not saying we should not cut military spending - as there are a lot of wasteful programs (most being some of the social, non-military programs within the DOD). But there are a heck of a lot more items in the rest of the government spending that are not only a waste but are detrimental to this country economicaly and/or socially. The military is a constitutional requirement as well as a survival requirement for this country. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the government programs are not.

Mon, Oct 24, 2011

I'm happy to see the conversation shift to a "strategy-first, cut second" philosophy. Not that the politicians are thinking beyond what it takes get elected in the next round. Just happy that advisors are atleast keeping national security in mind. We need to decide what is truly important to us and defend that. We need to defend our borders, control the two oceans on either side of us, and support our actual friends. That cuts out about two-thirds of the globe, where they put up with us only because they feel like they have to. Support for our friends doesn't have to mean defending them. It could mean empowering them to defend themselves.

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