How would you absorb a ten percent cut in your annual take home pay — that is the money you have after paying withholding and taxes? There are two common ways of dealing with this situation. The first is to trim your expenses where you can, cutting back on eating out, going to movies, delaying maintenance on that car with the strange engine noises, etc. The second way is to identify things you can do without like cancelling your membership in the golf or tennis club. In either case, you maintain spending on the essentials such as food, clothing, shelter, basic transportation, essential medical care. But what if you already did all those things? What would you do if you were down to the bare essentials, the things you felt were absolutely necessary in your life and you still had to cut back?
This is the situation facing the U.S. military. It has already trimmed its costs, reduced spending in most areas. In anticipation of sequestration, the services have ordered their components to eliminate non-essential travel, reduce maintenance activities, send temporary workers packing, freeze hiring and the like. This will not be enough. So far, the military has been prevented from taking steps that would make sense like closing excess military facilities, reducing its most obsolescent and expensive platforms or cutting back on pay and benefits. The heads of every service have gone on record warning that sequestration is likely to result in a hollow force as the military struggles to do everything the nation demands of it with fewer resources.
We are fast approaching the point at which our nation’s leaders will have to decide which missions they no longer will require the military to perform. The January 2013 new defense strategy identified ten primary missions for the military: counter terrorism and irregular warfare, deter and defeat aggression, project power despite anti-access/area denial threats, counter weapons of mass destruction, operate effectively in outer space and cyber space, maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent, defend the homeland and provide support to civil authorities, provide a stabilizing presence, conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations, conduct humanitarian, disaster relief and other operations. All these are complex operations that rely on a mix of capabilities. Virtually all of them take place overseas which creates a large and continuing demand for lift, aerial refueling, logistics, communications and intelligence. In some cases, such as deterring and defeating aggression, the mission involves doing major military operations in multiple theaters at the same time.
Which of these should we tell the military not to do anymore? How about counter terrorism and irregular warfare? If you believe that Al Qaeda is defeated for good and we can afford to ignore what is going on in Yemen, Libya, Mali and Algeria that would make sense. Then we could get rid of all our Special Forces. Or we could eliminate the mission of nuclear deterrence, send our ICBMs and strategic submarines to the scrap yard and rely on France and Great Britain to protect us from Russia, China and North Korea. How about eliminating our stabilizing presence around the world? The world is such a stable, quiet and non-hostile place that we can afford to come home and cross our fingers. We could choose not to ask the military provide support to civil authorities as they did after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or stand by after the next Indian Ocean tsunami or Haitian earthquake and not provide disaster assistance.
There are no good choices. Unfortunately, the option our leaders are likely to pick is the worst of all: to not choose to eliminate any major mission. This is the path not to a hollow force, but to one that will break.