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What Kind of Military Does America Really Want?

President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new defense strategy yesterday. It’s a strategy designed to take into account both the hundreds of billions already slashed from the Pentagon’s budget since the Obama administration came into office and the hundreds of billions more to be cut in the years ahead. It is a “declinist” strategy for an administration all too willing to accept the waning of American hard power and influence in the world.

The headline news coming from the new strategy is that the administration is tacitly abandoning the two-war capability. But one need only look at how we have handled Afghanistan and then Iraq to see that the U.S. never had the forces to deal with both wars simultaneously. Indeed, one reason the conflict in Afghanistan has taken as long as it has is because it was not until just a little more than a year ago that we had sufficient troops to begin a full-fledged, fully-resourced counterinsurgency campaign. 

Rather than fixing this problem, Obama's new strategy would cut tens of thousands more from America’s active duty forces.
The question is, should we care? And, even if we do care, can we afford to do anything else in light of current budget deficits?
The ability to handle two major military campaigns at the same time used to be the sine qua non of American global leadership. However, its critics often say it is an out-of-date, Cold War-era planning paradigm that no longer fits today’s realities.

Yet, in fact, it has been a force-sizing metric that ensured we had sufficient forces not only to fight wars but, more broadly, allowed us simultaneously to carry out a number of other, crucial national security missions: protecting the homeland, maintaining a favorable balance of power across the Eurasian land mass, deterring rogue regimes, protecting the great commons (sea, space and now cyberspace) and, at times, acting as a global good neighbor when catastrophes strike such as the ones that hit Japan last year.

Not having such forces in place is a gamble that we have a good idea of what military contingencies will arise next. However, if the post-Cold War era has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot know what exact problems will arise next.

Every president since George H. W. Bush has found himself using the military in wars he never expected. And given the general uncertainty in the international arena today, it’s a good bet that while we might not know what will come next, we can be pretty certain that something will. And when it does, the nation should not be put in a position where our adversaries think they can, through timing and clever planning, take advantage of our being militarily preoccupied elsewhere. Having sufficient military force to handle more than one war effectively at a time has been the nation’s strategic insurance policy.

Moreover, the announcement of a new strategy shouldn’t distract us from the fact that there are more cuts to come as a result of the failure of the super committee to reach an agreement on deficit reduction—cuts on the order of $500-$600 billion over the next decade that will force more force cuts and devastate plans to modernize each of the services. The administration claims it now wants to “pivot” security efforts to the Asia-Pacific region. However, there is a real question of whether projected defense spending levels will be enough to resource the increase in air, sea and space capabilities that the pivot requires, while simultaneously maintaining air and naval dominance in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

Undoubtedly, keeping a large and capable military force modernized, paid and trained takes a large amount of money. But there are also costs for having a strategy that openly admits it’s taking a gamble on what the future will demand. Ask any sound investor and he or she will tell you that an uncertain world is a much tougher world to do business in.

Those potential costs in peace and prosperity have to be paired against the savings gained by paring back the defense budget. And here the cost-benefit analysis is clear. Defense cuts, even of the scale now being talked about, will do little to fix our current fiscal problems.

In 2011, the deficit was $1.3 trillion, while the whole department of defense budget, wars included, was half that amount.

The real driver behind our long-term debt is the growth in entitlements. These have grown exponentially as part of the federal budget, amounting now to some 60% of the total federal budget. while defense spending, with wars included, remains basically at the same level as it did during the mid-1990s.

There is a déjà vu quality to this most recent exercise in scaling back America’s defenses. During the Clinton years, defense cuts became the bill-payer in an effort to balance the budget, while Congress and the administration allowed domestic spending to continue to grow. It left us with a military that, come 9/11, had to scramble to meet the new threats and tasks it faced.

As then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarked, “You go to war with the army you have.” The question is, do we want the next serious conflict we face to be one in which America’s military is sized and equipped based on what we can afford as a result of ObamaCare or, more prudently, based on what the nation’s security requires?

Gary Schmitt is director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Gary Schmitt co-directs the Marilyn War Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. For more, visit aei.org.