The Pentagon is already scheduled to take a big hit in the money department. In addition, the landmine laden wording of the debt ceiling increase bill assures that should the "super committee" not come up with the requisite 1.2 trillion bucks in additional cuts over the next decade, the "national security" portion of federal expenditures will take another, larger whack. Potentially, the "national security" community could lose over a trillion bucks during the next ten years.
The term "national security" is not defined in the recent legislation, but it is not unfair to posit that most of the money will be extracted from the pockets of the uniformed services simply because they consume the largest share by far of all dollars spent under the rubric national security. There is little doubt but those on the political left are gratified by the prospect of the Pentagon hemorrhaging dead presidents by the tanker load as, they assume, the result will be a military incapable of doing its (repugnant) thing. On the Right there is an equal but opposite emotion--fear. Those on the right fear that the US will lose its capacity not only to advance and defend its national interests but to protect the physical security of the country itself.
As recent experience has shown in the UK, there is real, clear, and present danger in basing national security planning on the need to reduce expenditures to the practical exclusion of all other considerations. As you no doubt recall, the Conservative/Liberal Democratic Coalition released its Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) late last year. The SDSR was predicated upon the imperative of reducing the budgetary "black hole" created by the previous Labor government.
As a result of this overarching consideration, the budget of the Services was slashed with a vigor not seen since the opening days of the Great Depression some eighty years earlier. The Royal Navy lost its only aircraft carrier along with the recently upgraded Harrier jump jets on board. (There will be a new carrier coming in the rather distant future but without any aircraft allotted--unless the French embark their planes or the US loans the Brits a few of its redundant F/A-18s.) The air force was cut to the lowest number of aircraft on inventory since just before the Great War. And, the ground forces were chopped by some thirty thousand slots.
By the time all the slicing and dicing was complete, it became clear that the UK did not have a military capable of "broad spectrum" operations regardless of assurances to the contrary by Prime Minister Cameron. Indeed, it appeared that when the SDSR was fully implemented, the British would not be capable of replicating their success in the Falklands War of thirty years ago. It was debatable whether or not the UK would be able to do a replay of its intervention in Sierra Leone a few years back or be a competent partner in interventionary operations such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Gulf War.
As if to underscore the idiocy of the SDSR, the Cameron/Clegg ministry undertook the Libyan adventure in conjunction with France only weeks after the Review had been released. Considering the ongoing mission in Afghanistan, the decommissioning of the aircraft carrier, the retirement of the Harriers, the destruction of the new Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft, the addition of the Libyan campaign to the British plate was a perfect example of ignoring self-inflicted constraints in pursuit of political opportunities. The British reach far exceeded its military grasp.
A parliamentary select committee dominated by Tories issued a scathing report a couple of days back in which the prime minister was roasted. The select committee in effect denounced the SDSR as having been short-sighted, counterproductive, and as sacrificing the long term interests and influence of the UK on the alter of short-term budgetary exigencies.
The select committee was bang on in its arguments and conclusions. The only component of the very bad policy contained in both the SDSR and the Libyan adventure was the tacit assurance predicated on decades of experience that the US would be there to pick up any and all military slack. The British (in common with NATO members generally) was guided by the sincere belief that the US would always be both able and willing to do all the really heavy lifting.
The reality was far different. As the Libyan campaign has shown, the US was unwilling to do much after the first few days beyond offer verbal support. The Obama Doctrine of "leading from behind" was invoked so the US could walk away from the Europeans First effort in the benighted but oil filled desert of Libya.
Now that the Americans have openly admitted that the flush days are far in the past, the belief that the US will always be both willing and able to pick up the military burdens of the civilized states generally demands reexamination both abroad and here at home. In the future the US may be willing but quite unable to employ military force in support of either its diplomacy or its physical security.
Will is one thing. Ability is quite another. Political will is perishable. It can flourish. Or, it can be exhausted, progressively reduced by a long war without a clear goal or end point in sight. Political will can be developed almost instantly as in the wake of Pearl Harbor or 9/11. But, it can be frittered away by inept decision making or bad policy choices. And, political will can be destroyed intentionally by an administration or a political elite following a given agenda.
Ability, the human and material capacity to wage war, is harder to develop, easier to lose, and expensive to maintain in readiness. The budget deficit demands that not simply senior military personnel and elected officials consider the real military needs of the US. Rather, this is a subject all of We the People need to consider, to debate, to answer. After all, it is our security, the physical integrity of our country, the interests of our economy, society, and polity around the world which are in play whenever the subject of "national security" is raised. It is our collective future which is at stake should we have too little military capacity to support our diplomacy or to deter potential enemies. Similarly, it is our collective economic future which is placed in peril should we have too much "defense," too great an expenditure on "national security" (whatever that might mean).
This implies that the proper starting point is not simply the budget chasm. The British made that major error; there is no need for us to repeat it. Dollars must be considered. Dollars and what they purchase must be near the center of things. But the mounds of dead presidents as well as the hardware they buy or the people they hire cannot and should not be the primary consideration.
The foundations of any national security budget must be a rational, conservative consideration of what does the US need to protect and to what extent does American diplomatic influence rely upon the big stick. In this connection we have to keep in mind that the US will be a target due to its size and geographic location as well as its social, political, and economic norms and values. We also must remember that nbe o country has ever been allowed to resign its status as a Great Power. It would be wise to note as well that international organizations such as the UN are no more effective than their most powerful members allow them to be.
The realities of the world demand that the US, quite unlike the UK or Germany or even the European Union as a totality, must be ready and able (even if not willing) to have a genuine "broad spectrum" capacity. We have to able to deter or to fight and win every type of war from the nuclear to the asymmetrical. As a Great Power, the US must have a comprehensive diplomatic portfolio which includes the capacity for the credible use of military force in every sort of mission from an exercise in coercion to humanitarian relief.
The realities of the world also demand that the US acknowledge that it has active enemies. Some are multidimensional in capability such as China or Russia. Others may have limited capabilities but are no less a threat for that reason such as advocates of violent political Islam. The US must not lack the basic capacities to deter, fight and defeat both ends of the spectrum. This means that no matter which battlefield the enemy chooses from the vacuum of space to the deepest oceans, from the most remote and barren mountains to the virtual worlds of cyberspace the US must be ready and able to fight and win should deterrence and the diplomacy of talk or sanction fail.
None of this means nor implies that the American "national security" budget cannot or should not be cut--even significantly chopped. But it does mean that the cuts, the reposturing, the redeployments must not be made without careful consideration and full debate not only inside the Pentagon or within Congress but among We the People, the people who both pay the bills and stand at risk if our "national security" components are not up to the challenge.
Implicit in the process is a consideration of what constitutes an "ally," a "partner." There needs to be a reconsideration of old alliances, of old relationships in light of the post-Cold War realities. It will be necessary, for example, to disabuse European "allies" of the belief that the US will provide for their defense, will support their diplomatic gambits with our military or step in when the political or diplomatic aspirations of a partner is not supported effectively by their own organic hard power instruments.
Whether he realizes it or not, David Cameron has provided a fine object lesson for the US. His SDSR has shown us the dangers of allowing deficits to define national security capabilities. And, his desire for a spot of glory in Libya has illustrated the pervasive nature of the don't-worry-the-Yanks-will-do-it fantasy.
Every time in the past when the US has wound down a war it has cut the defense budget. In the past, after World War II, Korea, Vietnam all come to mind, the US has cut too much, too fast. By so doing we made the world a more dangerous place. We also made the process of reconstituting our military capacities much more expensive and time consuming. Perhaps, just perhaps, this time will be different.
Not that the Geek is going to bet his ranch on it.