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The Big Squeeze

The Obama administration’s defense budget portends strategic decline.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By GARY SCHMITT and THOMAS DONNELLY
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Gates also noted that the U.S. battlefleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined. True. But what he didn’t say is that the current number of ships in the fleet, 286, is substantially below the minimum set by several previous studies of what the Navy requires to carry out all the tasks it is charged with around the world. Nor does he mention that this number is shrinking—and will shrink, if the budget stays as is, to levels not seen since the early 20th century. Undoubtedly, the ships of today are far more combat-capable than those of even 15 years ago. Still, numbers matter. Typically, for every ship on station there is one being refurbished after deployment and one undergoing training and work-up prior to deployment. Add to that the fact that the Navy is needed virtually everywhere—protecting the sea lanes, providing support for the wars, gathering intelligence, acting as a missile defense shield, and helping deter the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea—and one quickly comes to appreciate why a much smaller fleet, more widely dispersed, will become a strategic problem.

The tightening of the budget is also going to squeeze the Army. Putting aside the all-important fact that it precludes expanding the active-duty force, a flat or shrinking budget will also affect what equipment soldiers deploy with in future operations. Because the Army has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of its equipment, especially helicopters and vehicles, has been chewed up by wear, tear, and combat. In the past, supplemental appropriations for the war effort helped meet replacement needs; the current administration, however, has halved that funding this year, requiring the Army to begin scrambling to find money in existing and future programs to cover costs. 

None of the above means that there are not efficiencies to be found in the way the Pentagon does business, or that there is no need to get a handle on military health care and personnel costs. A good portion of the rising cost per serviceman, however, is connected to the realities of an all-volunteer force now in its fourth decade. In short, there is no magic reform wand that is going to make the Pentagon whole and healthy given the prevailing mismatch between defense dollars and American global strategy. Making the Pentagon 5 percent more efficient—a target any student of public administration would say is about as optimistic as one could be—will lessen but not solve this problem. 

The challenge is to preserve the global international order built and guaranteed by the United States. Though Americans seem habitually averse to thinking strategically, we have actually behaved in a broadly consistent manner since the end of World War II, including the uncertain period following the Cold War. As President Obama put it in his Nobel lecture, “The plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Now, however, the prospect of additional reductions in the size and capacity of U.S. military forces calls the “strength of our arms” into question: Will America continue to underwrite the great-power peace and the surge in human freedom and prosperity that it has secured? 

The strategic success of the United States rests on achieving three things: the defense of the homeland, including all of North America and the Caribbean Basin; safe access to and the ability to exploit the “global commons,” including the seas, the skies, space, and cyberspace; and a favorable balance of power across Eurasia. For all this to work as a “system,” each piece must be in working order. 

It took the attacks of September 11, 2001, to remind us not only that defense of the homeland comes first, but also that it requires the will and capacity to take the fight to the enemy. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants may be getting long in the tooth, and their goal of driving the United States out of Muslim lands may be growing less probable by the day, but Sunni extremism will be with us for some time to come, as the Fort Hood shootings and the failed Times Square attack made evident. No matter how difficult a task, preventing al Qaeda and its allies from finding new nests in weak or sympathetic states is necessary if we are to protect America. Other tools of statecraft are important to this fight, but without sufficient military capability to take the fight to al Qaeda and its allies and project hard power in tough environs, these other tools will not carry the day.

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