Drastic Defense Cuts Will Undermine Diplomacy

By Peter Huessy
JINSA Visiting Fellow

By Peter Huessy
JINSA Visiting Fellow

The United States is engaging in a major debate over the appropriate size of the Defense Department. At its heart are two issues. First, should we continue to reduce our military spending by roughly $947 billion over the next decade, as was agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011? Second, should the cuts occur across the board, excluding military pay, leaving military planners little discretion? Currently, both the cuts and the lack of discretion will go forward.

Over the next decade, the U.S. government will spend $44.8 trillion. At the same time, it is expected to add another $7 to $10 trillion to the current national debt of $16.6 trillion. This will happen even after all the budget cuts have been completed. Annual government spending will, therefore, climb from $3.6 trillion today to close to $6 trillion over those 10 years.

Two years ago, the Obama administration and Congress agreed to borrow another $2.5 trillion to pay for it all. The agreement came with a caveat – the borrowing would be offset by future spending reductions, spread out over the next decade.

There is great danger in pursuing this path. One only has to look at Europe. Budget deficits equal to those of the United States are being matched with stagnant economies and even recessional economies. European budgets were slashed and the unemployment rate there soared beyond 20 percent. A failure to get the U.S. fiscal house in order not only risks similar levels of unemployment but the shredding of the American social safety net.

Of the $3.6 trillion in current annual federal spending, $2.85 trillion is off limits from the budget cuts. These protected items include entitlement programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Military pay and overseas contingency operations are also off limits – a total of $253 billion in the defense budget alone – which means that cuts to the defense budget must come from what is left, $362 billion, which is mostly funding for military acquisition, research and development, and the readiness of our armed forces.

The additional penalty of sequestration – put into effect by the failure of the government to reach a budget deal – requires a cut of $1 trillion over ten years. Of that, defense is to be cut roughly $50 billion a year but in the tax deal agreed to in January, the $100 billion cut from all defense and non-defense discretionary spending was reduced to $85 billion because, at that point, the country was already four months into the fiscal year. The defense portion of the $85 billion, not including Department of Energy/U.S. nuclear laboratories, is $41 billion. Cutting $41 billion from the $362 billion described above makes for, in total, an 11 percent defense budget reduction effective immediately.

The budget cuts and sequestration together, therefore, impose a precipitate cut of more than a tenth of the entire defense budget without any discretion as to where the cuts occur. Critical programs will be cut just as less important programs. Air Force and Navy tactical and cargo planes and operations, strategic nuclear forces, ship and submarine building, and funding for missile defense programs will all be severely impacted.

The debate over defense is of serious import. The outcome will affect not only the security of America but also its allies and friends around the world. From this momentous decision, our adversaries will also draw conclusions – to what extent will the United States be able to protect the freedom and liberty won over the past three-quarters century since the end of World War II?

Following the end of the Cold War, annual defense spending of $300 billion declined to $265 billion. The budget reflected a lack of concern for national security, even as terrorism against the United States mounted – the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, the 1998 Africa embassy bombings, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.

Now it is true that since 9/11 military spending increased by $230 billion a year and $88 billion is being spent annually on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and other overseas contingencies. But over the past 12 years, per capita personnel costs have doubled, training and readiness costs are higher, and the United States has invested in new capabilities, including missile defense, drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, special forces, cyber and space capabilities.

The threats confronting America today are serious. Iran and North Korea build long-range missiles and cooperate on nuclear weapons. Pakistan builds more nuclear weapons each year than any other nation. China uses its military capability to bully Japan and other U.S. allies in the Pacific over oil and disputed territory.

Chinese cyber attacks occur daily by the thousands, with U.S. industrial technology being stolen to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Hezbollah makes inroads into Central and South America in concert with Cuba and Venezuela. Iran builds missile bases in Venezuela, from which Miami or the Panama Canal can be targeted with their Shahab-3 or other missiles.

Trillions of dollars in commerce travel through the Straits of Hormuz, the Straits of Malacca, and through the Panama and Suez Canals. Unfortunately, states and terror groups alike do not accept the rules of the road established after World War II by the victorious powers. Like brigands and pirates of old, they seek to hold hostage the economies of the free world and as such the livelihoods of billions. Piracy off the coast of Somalia has now migrated as far east as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Only naval vessels can protect sea-lanes of commerce. The air space through which we travel and communicate requires protective tactical air and space assets. The global rules of the road developed today, whether dealing with trade, shipping, intellectual property, conduct in space and cyberspace, all have a critical military dimension. Without them, prosperity is impossible and investment will not go forward.

A smaller U.S. military – weaker and less ready – risks being incapable of defending America’s interests in a future crisis that is sure to emerge. A strong military, far from being an alternative to sound diplomacy, compliments such statecraft. Our first president, George Washington, put it well: “to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” Defense matters. It gives authority to diplomacy and seriousness to alliance. It also furthers that constitutional requirement, “to provide for the common defense.”

Peter Huessy, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is President of GeoStrategic Analysis and the senior defense consultant at the Air Force Association. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.