The conventional wisdom in Washington is that defense budgets will have to be slashed. For many, including the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reduced spending is viewed as an important part of the effort to restore U.S. economic strength. To some, particularly in Congress, defense spending reductions are part of a complex political game intended to balance tax increases or limits on entitlements. For still others, primarily on the fringes of the political spectrum, cutting defense is part of their long-running agenda to restrain the influence and behavior of America in the world.
The decision to cut defense spending will not take place in a strategic vacuum. The United States will not be able to reduce expenditures on defense without any consequences. The most obvious of these will be the need to cut military capabilities and limit the overseas presence of U.S. forces. The United States, either alone or through its global network of friends and allies, has been the dominant force for strategic stability in the world. If the strong gravitational pull provided by U.S. global military power wanes, the best result we can hope for is strategic drift. The worst is the rise of would-be regional hegemons, an increase in local wars and an explosion in international terrorism.
Historically, the rise and fall in U.S. defense spending has tracked very closely with ebbs and flows in the threat. Implicit in proposals for deep cuts in U.S. defense spending is the assumption that the world will be a relatively benign place and that the risks associated with cutting back on military capabilities are acceptable and manageable.
However, there is a truism in defense planning which says that when formulating a strategy or conducting an operation it is important to remember that the opposition gets a vote. America’s adversaries were casting their votes even before the U.S. made deep reductions in defense spending. According to DoD’s Annual Report to Congress on the Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China, Beijing continues to fuel its military modernization program with double digit increases in defense spending. The report observes that, “Militarily, China’s sustained modernization program is paying visible dividends. . . During 2010, China made strides toward fielding an operational anti-ship ballistic missile, continued work on its aircraft carrier program, and finalized the prototype of its first stealth aircraft.”
Russia’s long-serving finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, resigned this week in a dispute with President Medvedev over continuing increases in defense spending. When Vladimir Putin last was president of Russia that country undertook a comprehensive military modernization program. In addition, the Russian military resurrected a number of Soviet-era practices such as sending Bear bombers into NATO airspace and conducting ship visits to friendly countries abroad such as Syria and Venezuela. Now that Putin appears headed for another 12 years as Russia’s president, we can expect Moscow to up the ante on defense spending.
In addition to building up an arsenal of ballistic missiles that can reach anywhere in the Middle East and as far as southeastern Europe, Iran initiated out-of-area naval deployments to the Eastern Mediterranean. A senior government official in Teheran suggested that his country might even deploy naval vessels off the U.S. coast. Just to round out the list of recently cast votes, North Korea has spent the last year conducting a series of attacks on its neighbor to the south.
None of these countries are likely to go easy on America just because we want to get our domestic economic house in order. In fact the opposite situation is more likely. Deep cuts in U.S. defense spending will result in a rapid narrowing of the gap in military capabilities between this country and prospective adversaries. Moreover, the perception of American military weakness may well spur one or more of those countries to seek to achieve its political objectives by means of force. Even as the American people yearn for a respite from the burdens of multiple wars and overseas security obligations, they and their government must recognize that this is a choice that actually rests in the hands of our adversaries. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on a long-term decline in U.S. defense spending. The world in the first quarter of the 21st Century is not that kind of place.
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