Little Prospect of Salvation This Defense Drawdown

In 2011, a United States at war on three fronts is concerned not with battles, bombing runs, or bodycounts but two numbers – 400 and 12. While American forces grapple with opponents in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the focus of daily national security discussion is how the Department of Defense will achieve $400 billion in budget reductions over the next twelve years as directed by President Barack Obama. The nation has finally yielded to its fiscal crisis by embracing calls for austerity and all sides have agreed the defense budget will not be exempt.  Balancing national security imperatives with fiscal priorities is always a challenge, and, fortunately, in previous defense drawdowns, the nation was able to identify and capitalize on opportunities to adapt. Unfortunately, what distinguishes this period is the lack of an "innovation" or a "dramatic shift" that would sustain the U.S. armed forces' ability to preserve national security with less resources.

Previous Defense Drawdowns

The first defense drawdown occurred under President Dwight Eisenhower, who served from 1953 to 1961.  Eisenhower’s first national security priorities were concluding the Korean War, which had become a stalemate, and reining in defense spending, which had climbed from $179 billion in FY1948 to $479 billion in FY1953, an increase of $313 billion, or 275% (FY2012 DOD Green Book).  Ending the war in Korea permitted an immediate decrease to $373 billion in FY1954, which became the floor for defense spending through FY1961.  While able to decrease the overall defense budget, Eisenhower readily recognized the consequence of inadequate resources, especially when the Korean War first erupted.  

The innovation that helped Eisenhower achieve his priorities was the advancement of nuclear weapons.  The United States no longer possessed a monopoly, but it was certainly ahead of the USSR in terms of the stockpile and its integration into national strategic planning and operational doctrine.  Relying on nuclear weapons enabled the United States to counter the overwhelming Soviet advantage in conventional forces while permitting Eisenhower to cap defense spending throughout his term.  Eisenhower shifted resources to the Air Force in order to develop the long-range strategic bombing capabilities needed to capitalize on nuclear weapons while keeping defense spending in check.  Indeed, the amount allocated to the Air Force peaked at $175 billion in FY1958, the same year American defense spending peaked during the Eisenhower Administration, at $407 billion (FY2012 DOD Green Book).  Eisenhower’s approach succeeded in achieving deterrence requirements vis-a-vis the USSR, but the caveat was diminished options available to policymakers in the event of a crisis.  The succeeding Kennedy Administration’s exploration for alternatives led it to adopt the “flexible response” doctrine, which eventually paved the way for American involvement in Southeast Asia and the disastrous Vietnam War.

The second defense drawdown occurred under President Richard Nixon (coincidentally Eisenhower’s vice-president), who served from 1969 to 1974. Nixon took office three years after US involvement in Vietnam began to escalate -- during the 1968 presidential election year, 500,000 American troops were deployed.  Opposition to the war overwhelmed the nation and contributed to the worst civil unrest witnessed in generations.  Nixon’s priorities entailed successfully extricating the United States from the Vietnam War, while ensuring the American military received sufficient resources to rebuild in the aftermath.  The preceding Kennedy and Johnson Administrations had increased defense spending from $404 billion in FY1961 to an average of $534 billion for the two year period of FY1967-1968 (FY2012 DOD Green Book).  Having campaigned to end the Vietnam War and likely to face continuing unrest if the draft (and high defense spending) remained in place, Nixon’s options were limited.

Nixon ended up making a dramatic shift -- ending the draft and establishing the U.S. military as an All Volunteer Force.  The decision (in combination with substantial troop withdrawals) neutralized the antiwar opposition and laid the basis for the future resurrection of American military power.  (The first major commitment of American forces comprised of volunteers, the Persian Gulf War in 1991, ended in stunning victory, famously permitting the country to close the chapter on the “Vietnam Syndrome”.)  Nonetheless, the immense success of the All Volunteer Force came with a price -- a  growing divergence between civilian and military spheres within the country.

The Most Recent Defense Drawdown

The common thread to both these periods is the existential threat posed to America by the USSR.  After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the next defense drawdown posed less risk.  The need for compensating innovation or course of action was less dire as the international security environment had improved.  

Unfortunately, the presiding Clinton Administration never fashioned a successor doctrine to containment to guide the use of American power and the consequences included ill-designed missions (Somalia), the increasingly frequent deployments for non-combat missions (e.g. the former Yugoslavia, no-fly zone over Iraq), and insufficient funding to meet readiness and modernization requirements.  

A Congressionally directed National Defense Panel introduced the concept of “transformation” in 1997, but the opportunity was overshadowed by President William Clinton’s entanglement in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  The next chance came with George W. Bush’s election to the presidency in 2000.  President Bush gave Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a mandate to pursue transformation, but the attacks of September 11 interceded and the opportunity for comprehensive change was again overtaken, this time by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Worse, the massive allocation of resources committed to waging these wars negated the need to make hard choices.  

The Next Defense Drawdown

Ten years and five trillion dollars later, the defense budget is poised for a massive decline.  On April 13, President Obama directed a $400 billion reduction in national defense spending over the next twelve years.  As the Department of Defense undertakes yet another comprehensive review of force structure and missions, due for completion in September or October, Ms. Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation indicated stated internal DOD guidance has directed reductions from $430 or $460 billion, while Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn’s proposal includes $1 trillion in reductions as part of broader national debt reduction.

And the prospect of salvation during this next defense drawdown?

Perhaps technological breakthroughs like directed energy weapons? 

In June, the Senate Armed Services Committee terminated the U.S. Navy's highly touted but experimental Free Electron Laser and Electromagnetic Rail Gun weapons projects.  The two initiatives were high risk and expensive, but had also recently achieved important technical milestones.  Complementary laser research exists but, as many have noted, the military has been waiting decades for laser weapons.  

Maybe space-based weapons?  Despite U.S. and Chinese demonstration of anti-satellite capabilities in 2007 and 2008, respectively, prevailing international norms preclude the militarization of space.  More concretely, the centerpiece of the manned U.S. space program, the Space Shuttle, just flew its last mission and the country will go from being a pioneer to a bystander on space matters.  (Indeed, the American military's growing dependence on space-based may prove a vulnerability.)

Perhaps a new doctrine like AirSea Battle? 

As summarized by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, AirSea Battle is a new operational concept undertaken jointly by the U.S. Air Force and Navy to achieve power-projection synergies in the face of the anti-access and area denial tactics employed by potential adversaries.  To fulfill its promise, however, the Department of Defense will have to make a sizable investment in next generation platforms, such as long-range strike.  Preliminary estimates comprising both development and production range from $44 to $46 billion.  Estimated unit costs would be below those for comparable existing assets (e.g. the B-2 bomber), but the aforementioned costs would hardly be acceptable in a favorable environment, much less the much more constrained one the department's entering now.

(The Army may have received a substantial proportion of defense dollars through the last decade (FY2012 DOD Green Book), but it doesn't mean they're prepared to return to historical shares (chart).  Commenting on Army chief of staff-designate GEN Raymond Odierno's forthright defense of his service's importance, Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute explained the services will be "struggling to redefine themselves" amidst the imminent budget drawdown.  Goure added if a service can demonstrate its indispensability, then the service would be less vulnerable to budget reductions.  However, the corollary is the "fraying" of jointness, as each service will fight to preserve its interests.)

Could new systems like precision weapons and remotely piloted vehicles suffice?  

Both minimize the exposure of American service members to the dangers of combat.  Both (theoretically) allow for the more limited and precise application of force, an important consideration given the war weariness of the American body politic.  Lastly, precision weapons and remotely piloted vehicles are relatively inexpensive compared to other strike platforms.

Unfortunately, like nuclear weapons, the American monopoly on precision weapons and remotely-piloted vehicles is beginning to end as other actors have begun attaining equivalent capabilities. 

Regarding the former
, the development of ballistic missile capabilities by the PRC and Iran, in part, is what prompted the U.S. Air Force and Navy to explore AirSea Battle concepts.  Moreover, countries such as France, Sweden, Israel, Russia, and Germany are making and selling guided rocket, artillery, and mortar rounds, which, in time, will end up in the possession of non-state actors, such as Hezbollah.  (During the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, Hezbollah fired approximately four thousand rockets into Israel, the overwhelming majority of which were unguided, and disabled an Israeli Navy Sa'ar 5-class corvette off the coast of Lebanon with what was believed to be a radar-guided C-802 anti-ship missile.)

Regarding the latter
, the United States remains dominant, but as U.S. Air Force LT GEN David A. Deptula (ret.), the former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, stated, “We are well ahead in having established systems actively in use.  But the capability of other countries will do nothing but grow.”  As with ballistic missiles, the PRC and Iran are moving aggressively to develop indigenous drone capabilities, and the PRC will be less reluctant to sell such systems.

Lastly, precision weapons and remotely-piloted vehicles are unlike nuclear weapons in that they are more readily employable in a conflict.  With the capability to wage war "surgically" and without the commitment of forces, international actors may be more inclined to exercise force than not (P.W. Singer, Wired For War).

Ultimately, precision weapons and remotely-piloted vehicles are unlikely to be a palliative for declining defense budgets because such capabilities merely fulfill operational and tactical requirements -- and against inferior opponents.  The United States itself has barely mastered how precision weapons and remotely-piloted vehicles should be incorporated into military doctrine and other actors are already seeking equivalent or countervailing capabilities. 

More pointedly, American leadership has not yet formulated a realistic national security strategy identifying national objectives and how available resources will be employed to achieve them.  Substantial capabilities exist, but for what aims and to what extent is decidedly unclear.  As noted previously, many expect Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's background as director of the Office of Management and Budget leaves him prepared for the likely fights over defense budget reductions.  Such expectations may be justifiable, but Panetta is not and has not demonstrated he is a strategist.  His predecessor, Robert Gates, emphatically warned math is not strategy and what American armed forces need now, absent "innovations" or "dramatic shifts," is a coherent strategy.

However, as Eisenhower and Nixon demonstrated during previous drawdowns, only the president can provide that.  Whether Obama can remains uncertain.

08/03/11 Addendum

The above focuses on the manner in which the United States has shifted its approach to defense matters in the past and the limited options available today, principally because of a  dearth of initiative within the Obama Administration.

However, informed proposals authored by experts outside administration exist and deserve attention.  One should merit continued attention, that of U.S. Army COL Doug MacGregor (Ret.), the a decorated combat veteran and author of Breaking the Phalanx (1997) and Transformation under Fire (2003).  COL MacGregor's 04/26/11 Foreign Policy article, "Lean, Mean Fighting Machine," persuasively asserts "that cutting defense doesn't mean going defenseless. It means reducing America's commitments overseas -- the latter-day version of "imperial overstretch" -- and changing the way the United States thinks about warfare. There's a way to do this, one that will allow for deep spending cuts, but in a manner that will preserve and enhance the U.S. military's competitive advantages while improving American national security."  COL MacGregor submits the United States could achieve an estimated annualized savings of $239 billion resulting from withdrawals from overseas garrisons and restructuring the United States' forward military presence.

For additional information see:
1) Lean, Mean Fighting Machine
2) A Radical Plan for Cutting the Defense Budget and Reconfiguring the U.S. Military

09/10/11 Addendum

On Sept. 8, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments held an event at the National Press Club to present its findings on the decade in defense since the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Mr. Todd Harrison conducted a portion of the briefing entitled "Shifting From Post-9/11 to Fiscal Austerity" (URL, Slides 13-20 of 28).  

Slide 16 of his presentation discussed the aforementioned drawdowns and the corresponding impact on total national defense budget authority (see printer friendly version).

Additionally, Mr. Harrison discussed why the current cycle was different as well as the sources of the growth.

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