This is a guest contribution from H.A. The author is using a pseudonym for professional reasons.
Most Americans probably assume (if they consider it at all) that the hundreds of billions of dollars the Department of Defense spends each year goes toward the defense of the United States. To some extent, that’s true. Tellingly, however, the Obama administration’s new defense strategy is entitled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership.” That’s because the Pentagon’s focus is not on defending the United States but on defending other countries. It’s a strategy based on the idea that only U.S. deterrence, achieved through military presence, will produce security in a particular region. Thus, in support of that theory, many of the high-cost, high-risk programs that the Pentagon is developing, including the long-range strike bomber, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Ford-class carrier, and the F-35 are necessary mainly, if not only, for the defense of others and could be reduced in scope or canceled altogether if U.S. foreign policy did not seek global hegemony.
As recently detailed by David Axe, the bomber program, canceled once already, has been scaled back from its initial plans but is still estimated to cost at least $550 million per plane. Its ostensible purpose is to conduct bombing operations in China and perhaps Iran. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed that mission when he prefaced his endorsement of the continuation of the program by referencing the Pentagon’s “rebalancing” to “emphasize the Asia-Pacific and Middle East areas.” Absent that mission, there is little to no requirement for the bomber program and it could be canceled…again.
The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program and its failings have been described extensively (and there may be more to come). After more than a decade of development and billions spent, the Navy has received two ships, while most of the technology for its associated modules are years away from full capability. Already the Navy has plans to send LCSs to Asia, specifically Singapore and perhaps the Philippines, to guard the coasts of those and other countries from Chinese mischief. Also, given the recent deployment of additional mine countermeasures (MCM) ships to the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon will likely station future LCSs there if the MCM module ever matures. It would be best, however, if the Pentagon gave the LCS program a merciful death now, in part because of those development issues, but mostly because it will be used predominately to protect others’ littorals, not ours.
Carriers (or more appropriately, supercarriers) are the ultimate symbol of U.S. power projection. Heavily escorted and supporting at least sixty aircraft, each Nimitz-class carrier possesses more airpower than most national air forces. The new Ford-class carrier will have room for well over seventy-five aircraft, including dozens of F-35s (if the plane survives its cost issues). This mobile, stealthy air force is a capability unique to the United States and is one that serves primarily offensive ends rather than defensive. Its existence is justified largely by its presence in the East China Sea, the Arabian Sea, or the Mediterranean Sea as it provides reassurance to allies more than willing to shift the burden of their defense onto the American taxpayer. While some carrier capacity is useful for actual defense of the United States, the Navy could achieve persistent readiness of sufficient carriers on both coasts with only six or seven carriers. Currently, the Navy is required by law to maintain eleven carriers.
Despite the F-35’s developmental drama, it is difficult to advocate the complete cancellation of the program because the Air Force, Navy, and Marines have all put their future strike fighter needs in the hands of Lockheed Martin a single aircraft. At the very least, the F-35B, the Marines’ version, should be cut, if only because it’s hard to imagine a truly serious amphibious assault that would not have the participation of a Navy carrier. (The amphibious ready group that participated in the Libya operation was used by choice, not by necessity, and there was no actual amphibious assault.) Ultimately, however, the F-35 is a response to the perceived possibility of defending others, especially Taiwan. Those making the case for the F-35 cannot do so without referencing its role in an air campaign against China. For example, a recent report by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) advocates greater spending on both the long-range strike bomber and the F-35 because of the threat of Chinese anti-access/area denial capabilities and platforms such as the J-20 fighter. But it’s not the United States that American F-35 pilots will be defending in a conflict with China, but Taiwan, or possibly Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, India, or several other countries that we have agreed to defend.
The Pentagon attempts to prevent such a war by employing a strategy of deterrence through presence. The idea is that the presence of U.S. troops in Asia, or the mere sight of a U.S. Navy ship along the sea lines of communication tamps down threats of aggression and smoothes the flow of global commerce. The Navy in particular views its global presence as essential to that strategy. In a recent post at AOL Defense, Mackenzie Eaglen, an analyst at AEI, stated it plainly: “The Navy spends the vast majority of its time assuring and deterring others, not fighting battles. Networks do not deter potential aggressors nor support and assure our friends and allies. Ships steaming the world’s oceans and sailors home ported in foreign docks do that.” Such a global force is extremely expensive, and built on an unnecessary foreign policy, but the persistence of belief in “benevolent global hegemony” has led Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to call defense budget cuts “catastrophic” and a path that “invites aggression.”
Even now, though, the military’s combatant commanders, each of whom controls military operations in his assigned region of the world, don’t think they have enough for global deterrence. As Vice Admiral William Burke, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, put it, “It would take a navy of over 500 ships to meet the combatant commander requests.” Likewise, General Dennis Hejlik, commander of Marine Corps Forces Command, claimed the Marine Corps has “about 1,700 requirements for general forces and can only fill about 700 to 1,000 of them.” What are all those unfulfilled missions and why hasn’t such insufficiency of resources doomed the United States already? Perhaps its because most of the unfulfilled missions, if not all, are not about U.S. national security; they are about the assurance of our allies and deterrence of their possible adversaries.
As budgetary resources level off, the Pentagon’s strategy of global deterrence will place even greater strain on a force composed of fewer soldiers and Marines and fewer ships and planes. Rather than continuing to adhere to a foreign policy that provides incentives for other countries to free-ride and that creates opportunities for self-defeating U.S. militarism, Washington should reduce its commitments and reestablish the Department of Defense as an organization true to its name.