Washington as a whole and defense experts, in particular, are bracing for massive reductions in defense spending coming out of the deliberations of the Congressional super committee. If automatic budget cuts are triggered, defense could see budgets decline by around $1 trillion over the next decade. Even if the super committee can reach a consensus, many observers anticipate hundreds of billions of additional reductions in defense spending above the $350 billion that has already been imposed. No less a figure than Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned that taking more from future defense budgets could be devastating to this nation’s security.
It may be easy to dismiss Panetta’s warning and similar statements from senior military officers and defense industry leaders as the obvious and expected pleadings of those with special interests involved in the size of the defense budget. But we have data with which to test the plausibility of their warnings. Following the end of the Cold War NATO allies, like the United States, took a so-called peace dividend from their defense budgets. It is important to note that even during the Cold War most of these countries did not provide defense budgets at the minimum levels proposed by the alliance. In addition, while the U.S. increased defense spending after September 11, 2001, the majority of NATO allies continued to cut. Following the global financial meltdown, those same countries accelerated those reductions.
What has been the impact of major defense spending reductions on Europe’s ability to project military power? Just look at the Libyan campaign. On its own, Europe could not have projected effective airpower against one of the weakest military powers in the Middle East. The U.S. had to provide the majority of cruise missiles employed at the start of the conflict to suppress Libyan air defenses. NATO lacked for airborne refueling, unmanned aerial systems to conduct both ISR and strike missions, electronic warfare aircraft, combat search and rescue capabilities, command and control facilities and secure communications. According to NATO sources, the alliance did not even have enough trained specialists to fully man the air operations center that directed the Libyan mission.
Today’s Wall Street Journal quotes NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen admitting that absent U.S. contributions to the Libyan campaign, Europe could not have pulled it off. “The fact is that Europe could not have done this on its own.” Rasmussen goes on to warn that future defense spending cuts could prevent NATO from projecting power even to nearby regions. “The lack of defense investments in Europe will make it increasingly difficult for Europe to take on responsibility for international crisis management beyond Europe’s borders.”
Some of Europe’s problem is undoubtedly due to the misallocation of available resources. But at some point in the budget cutting process even the wisest investment strategy must fail simply due to an inadequate base on which to build a usable military.
NATO defense spending (excluding the U.S.) stands at about 2 percent of GDP. U.S. spending is currently a shade over 4 percent but trending downward to around 3 percent based on the cuts already agreed to. Major additional spending cuts could take the U.S. down to the European level. At 2 percent of GDP, NATO was unable to handle on its own a single limited contingency close to its own borders. U.S. defense requirements are based on a strategy that requires meeting the challenges of multiple contingencies far from our shores. Four percent of GDP is the minimum level of spending the U.S. needs to meet its current national security requirements.
The United States can always make the choice to take its toys and go home, leaving the security of its vital overseas interests and the safety of its friends and allies to others or, more likely, to chance. Such a decision would permit large force structure cuts and support further deep reductions in projected defense spending levels. But the super committee has neither the charter nor the capability to force a radical departure in this country’s national security strategy or defense policy by imposing serious spending reductions in the absence of a national consensus on security issues.
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