Budget cuts are posing real problems for U.S. Military planners trying to accommodate themselves to the FY 2015 budget constraints. The consensus among senior military officers seems to be, “We cannot do that.” Senior congressional leaders are basically saying, “This is the future. Get ready for it.”
Military budget cuts are always political footballs, but in this important by-year election climate, everyone is trying to back away from this particular tangle of thorns. Cutbacks in military spending mandated by sequestration have already gone into effect, and more are coming in 2015 that will materially affect how the U.S. military will operate for years into the future. Budget cut proponents are suggesting that U.S. cannot afford to maintain its current military structure. Opponents to the cuts claim that nothing less will do in an increasingly dangerous world.
President Obama’s own budget proposal, which is usually dead on arrival when it is received by Congress, called for $549 billion in defense spending, and that number does not include the costs of maintaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The 2013 budget allocated $85 billion for Afghanistan. The president’s $3.9 trillion budget includes a deficit of $561 billion, roughly equal to the Defense Budget.
The $496 billion 2015 budget request submitted by the Pentagon still exceeds the spending caps imposed by the Sequestration compromise worked out in 2011 and enacted as the Bipartisan Budget Act. The Pentagon does not expect to get what it asked for, but it will be Congress, not the White House or the Pentagon, that will be seen as not doing the right thing.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is leading the assault on military spending caps for the Obama administration. As a highly decorated Vietnam-era sergeant, Hagel, a Republican, is the first enlisted man to serve as Defense Secretary in the history of the department. The former two-term senator is, however, leading from behind on the military budget cuts, saying, “Tough choices are coming” if Congress votes deeper spending cuts for upcoming years.
In challenging the budget his own Pentagon submitted to Congress, Hagel explained that the budget reflected the financial constraints .imposed by Sequestration. It is not anything that either the Pentagon or the White House want to live with, according to Hagel.
“This is not the military the president nor I want. It isn’t the military that this committee or this Congress wants for America’s future. But it is the path we’re on unless Congress does something to change the law,” he said.
In today’s briefing, Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid out additional cuts that may be required, if Congress does not lift the sequestration restrictions on military funding.
Under the force reduction proposals, the Army would reduce its ranks from 520,000 rank and file members to 440,000 men and women. The Marines stands to lose 8,000 slots, bringing the Corps’ forces to 182,000. That is only the beginning because, unless Congress reverses itself, the force reductions will continue into 2019.
Under the long-term Force Reduction Plan, over the next five years, the Army would be pared down to 420,000 troopers, and the Marines would have to make do with just 175,000 Leathernecks. The Navy might have to “mothball” one aircraft carrier, demobilize one air wing, and cancel plans to purchase a nuclear submarine, three destroyers, three supply ships and a floating staging base. The Air Force would be forced to retire an additional 80 aircraft, including the A-10 Warthogs, the air support mainstay of for small unit engagements, the entire fleet of KC-10 midair refueling tankers, and the Global Hawk surveillance drones. The Air Force would also purchase 24 fewer F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes over the next five years.
If implemented, these cuts would reduce the standing Army to its pre-World War II levels and, if modernization plans are not followed, the Navy and Air Force might find also themselves fighting future engagements with outmoded weapons and aging leadership because the military follows a last hired first fired discipline when required to cut spending. (No one is suggesting that the Navy or Air Force return to pre-WWII staffing levels…yet.)
While these cuts are being imposed, special operations forces will receive a six percent increase in their funding, indicating the Pentagon’s belief that future engagements are more likely to be short-term, small unit actions in which there will be no intent to keep boots on the ground after the job is done.
Conservative elements within the military’s intelligentsia are warning against this increased reliance on new technologies and small unit tactics. Major General H.R. McMaster, one of the Pentagon’s top theorists, does not think the new technologies or the special operations commands will revolutionize warfare, saying, “We need the ability to provide the kind of deterrence a large army provides.”
The question, for both military and civilian leadership, is, “How much is too much, and how little is not enough?” Total U.S. military spending in 2012 was $682 billion, more than the next ten nations on the military expenditures list. China has increased defense spending, going from $17 billion in 2006 to $166 billion in 2012, a warning sign for U.S. planners. As things stand right now, China has 2.2 million active military personnel. The U.S. has 1.43 million.
No one wants to claim credit for the sequester deal. It was first suggested by the Obama administration as a “poison pill” to stimulate rational budget discussions. When faced with the choice between behaving rationally, or continuing to pursue unworkable budget solutions, Congress decided to take the red pill after all, and sequestration went into effect. Since then, the Obama administration has repeatedly offered budgets that exceed the spending caps imposed by sequestration, and Congress has repeatedly failed to come up with a budget solution that would lift sequestration.
Budget cuts are posing serious problems for military planners who do not want to fight the next war with the last war’s strategy and equipment but, if something is not done soon, they may have to do just that.
By Alan M. Milner