The great post-September 11 defense build-up is drawing to a close. Over the last decade defense spending doubled. As the threat appears to be diminishing and as domestic economic difficulties loom large there are increasing calls to reduce defense budgets and the size of the military. Even those who support high defense spending and a forward leaning role for the U.S. military in the world are having a tough time justifying an acquisition program increasingly focused on a small set of very expensive platforms.
The Secretary of Defense suggested that it was time for the military services to rethink their approaches to force structure and weapons systems. He is working to reform the weapons acquisition process and recently launched an effort to find $100 billion of near-term savings in the defense budget.
Such reform efforts, while necessary, are really tinkering around the edges. The price of national defense will continue to rise. This is a consequence of rising personnel costs, the burden of maintaining an aging inventory of weapons systems, the challenges of operating in difficult and distant theaters and the challenges of developing and deploying weapons systems based on advanced, often untested technologies.
The only way to achieve significant savings in the defense budget is to shrink the size of the force. This means fewer people, weapons systems, bases and overseas deployments.
The problem is that the Obama Administration’s national security strategy and defense program require a large, sophisticated and forward deployed military. The Administration has emphasized its commitment to traditional allies in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. In addition, it has an expanded set of commitments to so-called partner countries and to using the military to deal with manmade and natural disasters both at home and abroad. Whether it is fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, conducting ASW exercises with South Korea, countering Somali pirates, bringing aid to Haiti or helping to secure the southern border with Mexico, the U.S. military finds itself in greater demand today than ever before.
What if, as a thought experiment, we took a clean sheet of paper approach to defining U.S. security requirements, one free of traditional concerns, commitments and relationships? What are the interests which must be protected and which are the nations that must be defended? What are the threats to those interests and friends and what military power is required to deter/defeat them?
The United States became the sole diva on the world’s stage at a time before globalization was a fact of life and when the principal threat to our security was from hostile, ideologically-driven nations seeking to conquer or otherwise absorb entire continents.
Globalization is a reality that alone will prevent the United States from pursuing a policy of isolationism and economic autarky. The United States is the world's largest trading nation. In 2008, the total dollar value of U.S.-centered international trade was $4.3 trillion ($1.8 trillion in exports minus $2.5 trillion in imports). Our principal trading partners, aside from neighbors such as Canada and Mexico, are large foreign economies such as China, Japan, the states of the Persian Gulf, and the European Union. The U.S. imports most of the oil it consumes, but from non-Persian Gulf sources. Ensuring unfettered access to our trading partners and the stability of regions in which they live will continue to be a principal focus of U.S. security planning.
But the scourge of fascism and communism with their associated efforts to dominate entire continents by threat or use of force no longer exists. Russia was hard-pressed to mount a successful military campaign against the tiny nation of Georgia. Its ability to reassert its power over the states of the former Soviet Union is extremely limited and in most cases would cost more than it would be worth.
China may be a problem in the future and exists in a neighborhood where we have interests. But with the exception of Taiwan which of China’s neighbors would that country seek to conquer? Arguably, for the next several decades at least, oil producing regions will be important to the health of the global economy and therefore to the U.S. So access to the Persian Gulf will continue to be a U.S. strategic interest.
That is it. Europe, South America and Africa are secure from large-scale military threats and even today demand very little in the way of traditional military capabilities. In the Persian Gulf the problem is one country, Iran. No nation is capable of threatening the so-called global commons. The sole area which should concern U.S. security planners is East Asia. Are there lesser threats such as Islamo-fascism which need to be addressed? Absolutely, but they do not require large war fighting forces. Might we do more to secure the homeland against weapons of mass destruction including those deployed on ballistic missiles? Sure.
It seems to me that a national security strategy and defense plan focused on just core national interests and the plausible threats to them would result in an entirely different military than the one we have today. Of course, abandoning traditional friends and allies could have a raft of unintended consequences including regional conflicts, WMD proliferation and even state failures. Those threats would require the return to a military of the size and characteristics of the one we have today.