Someone remarked on Twitter recently that when the ‘coindinistas’ at CNAS are advocating defense spending cuts you know the cause has hit mainstream. While reducing the entire CNAS organization to one topic is a bit unfair (they work on a lot more than just COIN), there is some truth to that statement. The public debate has shifted immensely over the past few years, with lots of task forces and commissions offering their own proposals for cutting the U.S. defense budget over the next decade or so.* Earlier this month CNAS added their contribution to the debate with the report “Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity.” The title pretty much sums up the dilemma facing policymakers in Washington, DC: the economic situation is putting pressure on the Pentagon to rein in spending, but it’s really hard—especially after a decade of warfighting has worn out troops and equipment.
So, what new perspective does the CNAS report bring to the table? Perhaps the biggest change in approach is the fact that this report is based on the potential cuts facing the Congressional Super Committee. Previous reports were based on hitting certain, often arbitrary, numbers such as debt percentage of GDP. The Sustainable Defense Task Force was told to come up with 1 trillion dollars in cuts. A nice, round number, but not based in concrete policies. The CNAS report looks at four different budget cut scenarios over the next decade, ranging from the rosy to the dismal, with two incremental steps in between. The rosy scenario here would be $350-400 billion, which is approximate to the Budget Control Act’s spending caps. The dismal scenario would be $800-850 billion, which is an estimate of the total cuts coming from the automatic spending reduction process—otherwise known as the trigger. These cuts would happen should the Super Committee not reach a deal on across-government spending by January 15, 2012.
Going from these four scenarios the authors outline the best possible ways to achieve responsibly cut defense spending under each circumstance. All four have a lot of suggestions in common, a sort of baseline proposal. Some of these include: prioritizing Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), preserving current plans for Special Operations Forces, retiring six CG-47 cruisers and reducing number of planned Littoral Combat Ship procurements (more on the LCS here), cutting number of planned F-35 purchases, shrinking Army and Marine Corps end strength in accordance with less demand following pullout from Iraq and Afghanistan, and prioritizing theater missile defense programs over experimental national defense missile defense programs. All in all, good suggestions and very much in keeping with the times—though maybe not very adventurous or creative.
In addition to these suggestions, the report outlines additional cuts based on each of the four scenarios. I won’t go into all the scenarios (if you need to know that, I suggest reading the entire report), but the dismal one is worth an extra look. Proponents of defense spending cuts, myself included, usually favor much steeper cuts than what moderates are willing to stomach, but the dismal scenario shows that the way the debt ceiling deal was done can lead to serious, and possibly dangerous, cuts to defense spending if handled incorrectly. The recommendations under the dismal scenario include:
- Cancelling the LCS in FY2013, leaving the United States without mine hunting and clearing capabilities.
- The F-35 program would have to be restructured, including cutting the Marine STOVL F-35B version. That would leave the Marine Corps without fixed-wing aircrafts once the current F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier II are retired. As the authors note, this would “diminish an important, but not vital, component of their current power projection capabilities.” However, it is unclear why more joint operations with the Navy and Air Force could not compensate for this.
- Army end strength would be reduced to 430,000 personnel. The tooth-to-tail ratio in the Army needs fixing, but the authors warn that such a steep reduction would reduce “its ability to operate in a high-intensity ground war without accepting high casualties.” Again, the authors have a point, but the United States is unlikely to, and definitely should not, fight another long-term ground battle in the foreseeable future. Cutting the size of the Army would lessen the incentives for wars of choice, and in the event of a serious threat the reserves and National Guard would be available.
Finally, the authors note that the dismal scenario “would require U.S. policymakers to make much more cautious choices about how and when to use force.” This is not a bad thing. An overly eager use of the U.S. military can be as much, if not more, of a source of instability as inaction. For decisionmakers the choice to go to war is made much easier when force is readily available and does not require instituting a draft, swaying public opinion, and establishing war taxes. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proved this too easily with her now infamous quote: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?”
However, there is one danger with this reasoning, and that is if politicians ignore the restraints and go to war regardless of capability and capacity. Then not only do you risk wasting resources on a needless war, but you risk degrading the resources you already have by spreading them too thin. Former President George W. Bush did this when he went to war twice without increasing taxes and grossly underestimated the toll on the military. In his case there was also a substantial opportunity cost associated with the two wars, but that is a discussion for another time.
Underlying the proposals and four scenarios in the CNAS report are some guiding principles that inform the strategic discussion. Some of these are sound, but others need more explaining.
The authors submit that naval and air forces will grow increasingly important in the future. This is sound thinking, as the United States, in the face of increased competition and economic restraints, will have to shift to a strategy of dominance in the commons and offshore balancing in the contested zones instead of hegemony. The incompatibility of a strategy of hegemony and the difficulties of controlling contested zones has been perfectly articulated by Barry Posen, and needs no further elaboration by me. Commanding the commons, however, is becoming increasingly hard and this development will necessitate an eventual change in U.S. strategy. Currently the United States possesses the capabilities and capacity to rule the air and sea (space is a different matter), but the proliferation of denial-of-access weapons technology will challenge this hegemony. While we are still years away from it, China and other nations are spending significant resources securing its own near waters and air to prevent U.S. fleets and wings from maintaining full freedom of movement. In the future, the United States will have to be satisfied with the ability to coerce its opponents with the threat of military dominance in the event of full-scale conflict.
The other guiding principles are: increasing interdependence across the four services; basing procurement programs on likely threats, not on the pursuit of maximalist capabilities; and changing the default model for acquisitions by accepting higher risk absent a proximate short-term threat and focusing more on programs over the long term. These are all sound principles, and I especially like that they spell out the need to accept more risk. For a moment there I thought they were channeling Gordon Adams, my old boss.
While not under the guiding principles section, the authors spell out what should be the United States’ priorities geographically speaking. East Asia comes first, then follows the Middle East, Europe is third, and Latin America and Africa are given the lowest priority (it is unclear from the text exactly where South and Central Asia fit in). One thing I find missing is a better discussion on the priorities. I concur that East Asia is the most important, perhaps followed by the Middle East, but emphasizing Europe helps perpetuate the myth that the only thing standing between the European continent and another great power war is the United States. One could make the case that Africa, because of its resources, and Latin America, because of its proximity, are more important areas than a relatively stable Europe. It would be helpful if the authors articulated the reasons behind their priorities, but perhaps that is a discussion for another time and another report.
Still, something is missing from the report. The authors have done a very good job laying out realistic and well-thought-out plans for reducing defense spending under various scenarios, offering policymakers a real blueprint going forward. Yet it is unfortunate that the report spends more time discussing what the United States can and cannot do rather than what it should do with its military. Criticizing such a fine effort for not addressing an issue it was not intended to address might seem a tad unfair, but as the authors themselves point out, “we judge the risks associated with [the dismal] scenario to be very high, unless policymakers alter the U.S. global engagement strategy significantly or generate savings by reforming military pay and benefits in order to reverse some of the programmatic cuts described here.” Implicit in that statement is the understanding that any significant reduction in U.S. defense spending must be coupled with a reorientation or recalibration of U.S. grand strategy. However, the CNAS report never adequately addresses this. Hopefully, that will be a discussion for next time.
* Full disclosure: I contributed analysis on defense spending to the Sustainable Defense Task Force’s report “Debt, Deficits, and Defense” and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force’s report “Restoring America’s Future.”