America’s chattering classes seem at last to have awoken to the fact that the U.S. military ain’t what it used to be. Even the New York Times allows that “the Pentagon’s proposals to reduce the Army to pre-World War II levels” could “seem unsettling to a nation that prides itself on having the world’s most capable military.” It could also unsettle the world, and most of all those allies who rely on the United States to keep a variety of dangers at bay.
Indeed, the real news in last week’s budget announcements from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is that it’s finally news. After all, this is hardly the first time Barack Obama has cut military spending. When this president moved into the White House, he inherited a military that George W. Bush belatedly had expanded to conduct the Iraq surge and whose budget, outside of war costs, had made only the smallest dent in the drawdowns and the “procurement holiday” of the Clinton era. However, instead of addressing the “hollow buildup” of the Bush years, President Obama, with Robert Gates at the Pentagon’s helm, proceeded to cut some $400 billion more from the military’s planned spending—all of this coming before the Budget Control Act (BCA) and its nearly trillion dollars in mandated cuts.
Now, living under the BCA, and despite some small relief from sequestration’s caps provided by the Paul Ryan-Patty Murray budget deal this past December, this year’s defense budget and the just-announced budget for next year will be nearly $200 billion less than what even the Obama team had planned to spend when it put forward its budget plans just three years ago.
And these reductions don’t really capture the full story, because, as with compound interest, the effect is magnified over time. Thus the number of soldiers in the active-duty Army is projected to fall from the pre-Obama strength of almost 570,000 to about 440,000. And even that is a wildly optimistic number: The administration is assuming that after this year, the BCA spending caps will disappear. Even if that were so—as we devoutly hope it is—it’s not something to plan on. On the current budget trajectory, the Army will slip below 400,000 by the end of the decade.
The other services are on a similar, if less severe, downward course. So are procurement programs. The Navy will be able to buy just 32 littoral combat ships—the smallest and cheapest surface combatant—instead of 52. Goodbye to the Navy’s hopes of having a 300-ship fleet, the minimum it has long said it required to meet its global responsibilities. And a number of older platforms—the A-10 “Warthog” close-air support aircraft, the U-2 spy plane, 11 Navy cruisers—are being retired before the end of their service life, even though they are in high demand by U.S. theater commanders. Lack of training funds has already reduced unit readiness to dangerously low levels, according to the service chiefs of staff. And, irony of ironies, the Obama administration, while subsidizing a monumental expansion in civilian health care entitlements and reneging on a proposal to constrain the outlandish cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security, wants to hike co-pays for military retirees and reduce other benefits. So while the country’s defense burden slips below 3 percent of GDP, entitlement spending is well over four times that of defense and continues to grow and grow.
The rationale for all this cutting, says Hagel, is that he’s “not budgeting and prioritizing for wars.” And he has a point: The administration ignominiously “ended” the U.S. effort in Iraq, and is setting the stage for a similar bug-out in Afghanistan later this year. Obama “led from behind” in Libya, and made the military eat the billions his feckless strategy cost out of its baseline budget. He’s sidestepped any action in Syria, despite laying down a red line to Bashar al-Assad. The ballyhooed “Pacific pivot” is a more delicate pirouette; just last week a Chinese general demanded an “air defense identification zone” for the South China Sea, having gotten the United States to acquiesce in one over the Sea of Japan.
Retreat is cheap—for a while. The notable thing about returning to “prewar” force levels is that they set the stage for the wars to come. Preserving the peace is always cheaper than fighting to achieve it. But Barack Obama finds it “unsettling”—to reverse the Times formulation—to preside over an America that still “prides itself on having the world’s most capable military.” To our current commander in chief, that capability apparently is just an invitation to get into mischief.