Being a world military superpower carries with it a lot of benefits. Even during the Cold War, when the United States confronted the Soviet Union, there were a host of political and economic benefits associated with staring down the Russian Bear. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has exercised the responsibilities and reaped the benefits associated with what political scientists have characterized as “a unipolar moment.” Whether it is negotiating with Saudi Arabia for moderation in oil prices or gaining agreement from Japan for voluntary quotas in the export of cars to the United States, it helps to be the country guaranteeing their security.
This moment of sublime superiority is about to end. The U.S. military faces the fifth drawdown in defense spending since the Cold War began. The average decline in all the prior defense spending drawdowns has been on the order of 35 percent from peak to trough. This will still leave the U.S. with a defense budget of some $400 billion. However, the purchasing power of that budget will have been severely eroded. Moreover, the fixed costs associated with an all-volunteer military are likely to continue to rise and weapons systems are not going to get any cheaper. The result of the impending drawdown will be a smaller military than the one we have today and possibly one without the wherewithal to engage in multiple conflicts at the same time.
Whether he recognizes it or not, President Obama, like his predecessors for the past six decades, has become addicted to American military preeminence. It is indeed heady stuff to be able to send special operations forces to central Africa at a moment’s notice to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army, to sternly warn Syria against attempting to employ its arsenal of chemical weapons or to check off a name on a list and have a Hellfire missile dispatched from a drone within hours against a terrorist leader. The President’s advisors and the Pentagon generals are equally addicted in their own ways. They have all grown up and spent their professional careers in the comforting shadow cast by American military power.
One option is for the United States to more carefully husband its declining military capabilities. It also might invest more heavily in cutting edge capabilities, in cyber warfare, long-range air and military space, recognizing that these systems will determine victory or defeat in future conflicts among peer states. But this strategy means doing less today and tomorrow. It means that our leaders will no longer be able to bestride the globe. This will be a tremendous let down for leaders who have always taken this country’s military preeminence as an article of faith.
Every defense drawdown has been terminated by a crisis that has resulted in the need to increase defense spending and rebuild American military power. It is unlikely that this latest drawdown will end any other way. Whether it is political instability in the Middle East, Iran’s efforts to dominate the Persian Gulf, North Korea going off the rails, a militarily resurgent Russia or China seeking to control the Western Pacific region, something will happen. Perhaps several things will occur at the same time. In the 1930s, Great Britain never planned for a two front war but that is what happened.
The reality is that the United States military will not be able to play its erstwhile superpower role if a significant drawdown in defense spending occurs. The Pentagon knows this. Today, absent sequestration or additional defense cuts, the military is barely able to meet the demands of the current defense strategy. But will our political leaders have the stomach to accept a reduced global role for the United States or will it ask the military to do more with less? Can we accept a military status similar to that of 21st Century Europe?