The conventional wisdom in the national security community is that the United States must and will reduce its expenditure on defense and hence the size and capability of its military forces. Defense analysts are trying to put a good face on this situation in speaking of frugal superpowers and leaner and meaner defense establishments. A few have argued that the United States must alter its foreign and defense policies so that there will be fewer, less stressing missions for a reduced military to perform.
The last time the U.S. military contracted and the defense budget shrank was at the end of the Cold War. Over the next five or six years, the U.S. military shrank by almost half, from eighteen Army divisions to ten, almost 600 ships to around 300, and from 28 fighter wings to 20. That legendary stalwart of a strong defense Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense in the First Bush Administration, was responsible for canceling more than 100 weapons programs.
The defense decline of the early 1990s was based on two premises. The first was the need for a peace dividend in the wake of the recession of the late 1980s. The second was that with the fall of the Soviet Union there was less of a need for a large and capable U.S. military. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, opined that the United States was running out of enemies. Many expected that the world after the end of the East-West ideological conflict was going to be less conflict ridden. Remember such phrases as “new world order” or the “end of history?”
The reality was quite different from the optimistic vision. The decade of the 1990s was bookmarked by the first Gulf War and September 11. In between, the U.S. military, freed from the responsibility to man the ramparts against the Soviet threat, found itself undertaking a wide variety of other missions from humanitarian relief and nation building in Somalia to maintaining no fly zones over Iraq and supporting the expansion of NATO. Measured in terms of the number of unit deployments that took place, the U.S. military experienced a four-fold increase in its utilization rate even as it shrank by almost half in terms of deployable forces.
The result of the two trends mentioned above was a hollowing out of the military. In order to support force deployments, the procurement and military construction accounts were particularly hard hit. One former Army Chief of Staff estimated that his service had deferred some $56 billion in expenditures on maintenance, procurement and construction in the 1990s. Hundreds of billions of dollars of the rising defense budget post-2001 was spent to make up for inadequate investments of the preceding decade. Even with the increases in defense spending under Presidents Bush and Obama the age of the force overall has increased due to insufficient procurement for such weapons systems as tankers, strategic bombers, fighters, armored fighting vehicles and Navy surface combatants.
Even in the relatively quiescent 1990s, the U.S. military found itself extremely active. If anything, the new decade will be even less quiet and stable. One only has to point to the rise of China, belligerent regional powers such as North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Russia, failing states like Pakistan, Sudan and Ivory Coast and rising non-state actors. At the same time, the U.S. is becoming more engaged in the world economically.
The belief that the United States can withdraw even part way from the world, engage in so-called offshore balancing or selective engagement flies in the face of the recent historical evidence, ongoing national interests and the structure of the extant international order. In fact, the role of the U.S. military in protecting U.S. national interests is likely to increase as erstwhile allies such as Britain, France and Germany spend less on defense. We may be well advised to engage less in certain missions such as nation building. But this only means the U.S. military will spend more time on others such as counter-terrorism. Nor can the U.S. military avoid the twin challenges of nuclear attack and large-scale conventional conflict so long as potential adversaries are acquiring both kinds of forces.
The United States will have to go through the obligatory period of trying to decrease its spending in defense and its international military presence. We will also see a short-term decline in defense stocks. But smart investors – and smart strategists – would be wise to bet on U.S. defense for the long run. The world has no one else to whom it can turn.
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