If you are surprised by this week’s announcement of major manpower cuts to the U.S. Army, you haven’t been paying attention. For a long time.
There are two components to understanding America’s defense spending choices — the political and the budgetary; they are not the same. The Administration has made the political case clear.
- Beginning in 2011, President Obama pronounced himself committed to “ending the wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan “responsibly.”
- The president committed to a turn inward, beginning with a 2011 statement that “the nation we need to build is our own,” coupled with the promise to cut troops deployed abroad in half.
- The refrain “no boots on the ground,” is the mantra of many administration officials, resurrected again last weekend by Susan Rice regarding limits to U.S. support of rebels in Syria — although no one appears to have suggested so much as a huarache.
- Secretary Kerry’s visit to Indonesia prompted him to declare global “climate change” as big a threat in Asia as “terrorism, poverty and WMDs.” He skipped China’s increasingly bold assertions of hegemony in Asian waters and increasingly large defense budget (still miniscule compared to ours, but one heads one way, the other the other way).
It really doesn’t matter that none of those things are true, meaningful, or helpful in terms of American national security policy. The president’s political message has been consistent and expedient — except for the large, not-very-truthful explanation of the war in Libya and its aftermath — and resonates with an American public that is “war wary” (if not “war weary”), creepingly (if not yet creepily) isolationist, and happy with a presidential plan to “save money” after years of rise in the national debt.
On the side of defense budgetary understanding, the message has been out there as well. The Pentagon frequently publishes it operating assumptions: the enemy, the allies, and the requirements for success. Nearly two years ago, The Jewish Policy Center analyzed a January 2012 DOD paper titled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” The paper postulated that reductions in nuclear modernization, defense industrial base, and experienced troops and officers would be consistent with what the Pentagon called, “The President’s goal of maintaining America’s… Armed Forces the best-trained, best-led, and best-equipped fighting force in history.” The paper covered military premises, not political ones, including:
- The U.S. will not be engaged in large-scale ground operations;
- Smaller, more flexible forces can cover counter-terrorism operations;
- The U.S. nuclear arsenal can safely be reduced, and nuclear modernization is not an immediate issue
- European allies have adequate defense resources to complement those of the U.S.;
- The U.S. has the resources to “pivot to Asia” without abandoning its responsibilities in the Middle East; and
- Regardless of the size of the defense budget, the U.S. retains the intellectual and productive capacity to “gin up” whatever is required for unforeseen contingencies.
None of the premises proved sustainable for even two years, but there they sit.
The Pentagon’s Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR), which proposes options for implementing defense cuts required by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, was released in July 2013. A good short-form overview was provided by Steven Bucci at the Heritage Foundation, highlighting Secretary Hagel’s public discussion of the possibility of shrinking the active Army to as low as 380,000 and the active Marine Corps to as few as 150,000. Today, the Army plans to retain 440-450,000 troops and hold the Marines at 182,000
There was some pushback from the military services at the time, particularly from the Navy, which had already been watching a decline in funding and in the absolute number of ships. Navy CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenert, told a Pentagon briefing in mid-2013 that in the event of a crisis, the Navy has “only one fully prepared carrier strike group and one amphibious assault group in reserve that it could rush to the scene. By comparison, the Navy [in 2012] had three of each that could have been used.” He added, “The rest of the fleet is not ready to deploy with all the capabilities that are needed that we would normally have in our fleet response plan,” and that the Navy has had to cut training and maintenance because of spending reductions to the point where many other ships and personnel are not fully certified for all the tasks they might ordinarily have to handle.
If you’re feeling snowed by Secretary Hagel’s “sudden” announcement of increasingly quick decline in America’s military muscle, it’s February and the snow is not metaphorical.
President Obama came into office with openly stated and very broad economic and national security goals. Some of the effects of his domestic policy have been food for journalists — the debacle of Obamacare, the IRS scandal, the rise in food stamps and disability, and withholding approval of the Keystone Pipeline come quickly to mind. Some national security policies have pushed their way into American public consciousness — drone warfare, NSA spying on citizens and journalists, the manner of our departure from Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, and the “pivot to Asia” perhaps.
What has been missing is an informed understanding of the underlying political and military assumptions, plus assumptions about how to structure and pay for a robust national defense capability. There is still time to present those assumptions and choices to the American people before the cleaver falls on our military and its ability to protect the United States, its allies and its interests.
But the forces of duck-and-cover and cut-and-run withdrawal from international affairs has had a major head start.