Why Stop There?

The Obama administration's leaner, meaner military may be still too big.

If you listened on Thursday afternoon to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lay out the details of the 2013 Pentagon budget, warning that cuts yet deeper than the ones Congress had mandated could "inflict severe damage to our national security for generations to come," you would have had a hard time believing that the Pentagon's budget had been reduced all of 1 percent -- from $531 to $525 billion -- with small increases projected over the coming years. While the rest of the federal budget is being squeezed to a pulp, the Defense Department, which now absorbs more than half of discretionary spending, has to forego the 6 to 7 percent increases to which it has become accustomed since 9/11. Cue the violins.

The focus of public attention, and criticism, will of course fall on those areas where the budgetary axe has landed, and above all on the planned reduction of the Army from 570,000 to 490,000 active-duty troops over the course of the next five years. Panetta pointed out that this would still make the Army bigger than it had been on Sept. 11, when the figure was 482,000. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he was "confident that 490,000 is the right number for 2017," when the current five-year plan will end. I wish that someone had asked him why he was so confident. It's quite possible that the Pentagon hasn't cut deep enough.

The real, unspoken theme of the 2013 budget is not "smaller," it's just "different" -- though the difference in spending is much more modest and incremental than the change in doctrine which lies beneath it. The very first priority listed in the new budgetary document is the "Rebalance Towards the Asia-Pacific and Middle East Regions," where the Pentagon authors write: "The focus on the Asia-Pacific region places a renewed emphasis on air and naval forces while sustaining ground force presence. The Middle East has been dominated by ground force operations over the last decade; however, as we gradually transition security in Afghanistan and reestablish peacetime ground presence, this region will also become increasingly maritime." For this reason, the planners, explain, they have maintained the current bomber fleet and all 11 aircraft carriers -- and kept troops forward-deployed in Asia while removing two of the four brigades based in Europe. While the Navy will give up some ships and the Air Force some planes, neither will suffer a loss of uniformed personnel.

The deep change which the new budget rather vaguely discloses is the shift from a military doctrine focused on land wars to one much more oriented towards naval and air conflict. First, as the "Strategic Guidance" which the Pentagon issued earlier this month states, "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" -- i.e., no more wars of occupation like Iraq or Afghanistan. We have tried it, and we don't like it, and we're not as good at it as we thought. Second, China has replaced, or drawn even with, al Qaeda as the chief threat to U.S. national security -- at least that's the view in the military and the administration. The terrorist threat will be increasingly countered through drones and Special Forces. And the threat from China will be countered largely through naval and air power. The same is true of the very real danger that Iran will seek to choke off the Straits of Hormuz.

It is no longer obvious, as it was only a few years ago, what the Army is for anymore. This is not some sort of metaphysical question. As Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says, "In the Cold War, the Army was the supported force, not the supporting force. The same was true in Afghanistan and Iraq." The Navy's job over the last decade was mostly to haul fighter planes around on top of aircraft carriers. But all that has been reversed. The military is now very much focused on projecting power in regions where strong states, not stateless actors, are developing the capacity to exclude us. Krepinevich is one of the authors of the so-called "AirSea Battle Concept," whose goal is to counter the threat that China's long-range missiles, anti-satellite and cyberwar capacity, space-based and land-based surveillance systems pose to U.S. forces stationed in Asia and to America's Asian allies. AirSea Battle, as the name implies, involves coordinating efforts by the Navy and the Air Force. Krepinevich flatly dismisses the possibility of a land war against China. The Army's role in Asia, he says, will consist largely of training allies and partners, such as Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.

The Army has never fully embraced counterinsurgency, the chief doctrine to emerge from the wars of the last decade. And now the Navy and Air Force have AirSea Battle. The Army's current problem may have less to do with a lack of imagination than with a lack of appropriate enemies. Who do we expect to fight a land war against?

As the military strategist Andrew Exum recently wrote, "No one can clearly spell out what the U.S. Army is meant to do in the current threat environment and why its current share of defense budget makes sense." Exum notes that the two big growth areas for the Army are training foreign militaries and special operations, especially in counterterror settings. But counterterror efforts will be largely carried out by Special Forces -- whose numbers remain steady in the current budget -- while training is a much more modest and less glamorous role than war-fighting, and one that the Army does not particularly enjoy.

 The Army, which devotes immense resources to thinking about and imparting matters of doctrine, is trying to find its way in this new environment. The service's big thinkers are engaged in an exercise called "United Quest 2012," which is designed to figure out a way forward and, not incidentally, offer strategic grounding for the Army in what are bound to be increasingly fierce inter-service budgetary battles. According to reports from recent United Quest seminars, officials are "peeved" to have been excluded from AirSea Battle, but also "looking for something like that." I spoke to Ricky Smith, a senior civilian official with the Army's Capabilities Integration Center -- a big-think site at Fort Eustis in Virginia -- who said, rather hopefully, that AirSea Battle is still only a "concept," and may never make it to the status of "doctrine." In fact, the centrality of the Navy and Air Force to preserving security in Asia and the Persian Gulf is firmly established.

In any case, as Smith noted, "wars pick you" and not the other way around. You don't, that is, usually fight the wars you expect, much less intend. And that's the real reason why a (mostly) defensive power with global obligations needs a large standing army. The Army is a hedge against uncertainty, against what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to call the "known unknowns." What if a war breaks out over access to oil in West Africa, or natural gas in Central Asia? Sounds unlikely? So did a war in Afghanistan until it wasn't. You need insurance. But how much do you need? This is a matter not only of cost but of plausibility: While it is very easy to imagine small-scale conflicts in these or other settings, a war involving 100,000 soldiers, like Iraq or Afghanistan, is highly unlikely.  The Strategic Guidance stipulates that America's armed forces must be able to win a war in one region while blocking an "opportunistic aggressor" in another. This still seems like a lot of insurance. And it's instructive that while the Army will be pared back to pre-9/11 levels, the Army Reserve and National Guard are being preserved from cuts. They constitute, in effect, a hedge against the hedge.

For all the caterwauling we're bound to hear about the current round of cuts, which amount to $485 billion over the next decade, there are probably more to come. The failure of last year's bipartisan deficit-reduction panel triggered automatic cuts of which about half, or $500 billion, will be apportioned to the Pentagon. It's unlikely that all of that can be avoided. In that case, President Obama may find himself asking the same questions about the Army that so many military experts have. Andrew Krepinevich, no dove, suggests that the Army may settle at 450,000 troops. That sounds like plenty. The Army had better come up with some good answers.

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Terms of Engagement

The Military-Political Complex

Why is Barack Obama standing to the right of conservatives when it comes to cutting the defense budget?

With the country's eyes turned to South Carolina this week, I have a peculiar tale to tell of the Palmetto State:

The story begins in November 2010, when Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney unseated John Spratt, a 14-term Democrat, in South Carolina's 5th District. Spratt, who sat on the House Armed Services Committee, was probably the last of a very long line of Democrats who had helped turn South Carolina into an archipelago of military bases. One of the biggest of them, Shaw Air Force Base, sits in the 5th District. But Mick Mulvaney didn't think he had been elected to bring home more military bacon. So last summer, he outraged his hawkish colleagues by introducing an amendment to freeze current defense spending at 2011 levels. (The measure was trounced.)

This past fall, I went to talk to Mulvaney in his office. He told me with great pride that he had compiled the second-most conservative voting record in Congress. He was a small-government conservative, down the line. So defense spending, to him, was simply spending, and he had no intention of going along as his predecessors had. "We have ended up," Mulvaney said, "in the situation which Eisenhower warned us against, that we are so beholden to the military-industrial complex that neither party is willing to make the tough decisions." As he spoke, I thought I heard the late Sen. John Stennis -- he of the eponymous aircraft carrier -- spinning in his grave. Mulvaney said that at town-hall events he often cites the words of Adm. Mike Mullen, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said, "The most significant threat to our national security is our debt." I asked whether any of the military veterans in the crowd came after him. Nope, said Mulvaney.

I later spent some time in the 5th District talking to Mulvaney's constituents. My favorite interview was with Jim Vinyard, a Vietnam War vet who had turned the upstairs of his home into a shrine to the Marines. Vinyard told me that "political correctness" was eating away at America's vitals, and he was extremely rough on Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and liberals generally. He said, however, that he had no problem with Mulvaney's effort to hold the line on defense spending and, like presidential candidate Ron Paul, couldn't see why America kept troops forward-deployed in Europe and Asia. His experience in Vietnam taught him that the battle for "hearts and minds" now under way in Afghanistan can't be won. He was ready for the United States to get out.

Several themes kept coming up in my conversations in the district. One was a disgust at the federal government from which the Defense Department enjoyed no immunity -- the classic Tea Party view. Another was disillusionment with America's foreign adventures abroad and a wish to bring the boys home. Chauncey Gregory, who holds the seat in the South Carolina Senate that Mulvaney held before him, says he has grown so disgusted with recent interventions abroad that he would warn his 20-year-old son again joining the Army -- an apostasy in that neck of the woods. A third issue was: Where's the big threat? Terrorism didn't seem nearly as dangerous as it had before. And China and Iran were problems for another day.

One of the inferences I drew from these conversations was that the very real threats of recession and unemployment had made the threats beyond U.S. borders seem remote and hypothetical. In a zero-sum calculus, foreign policy lost -- a worrying prospect for anyone who wishes to revive Americans' faith in their country's capacity to do good abroad. Beyond that, I had the impression that the link between patriotism and defense spending, which hawks had encouraged for generations, was finally loosening. You can love the military without loving military spending. In the South Carolina debate this week, Paul claimed that he received more funding from currently serving soldiers than the other candidates combined. That sounds unlikely, but it would be telling if he got even as much as candidate Mitt Romney or the latter's fellow hawks.

In the debate, Romney renewed his attacks on President Obama's planned defense cuts, accusing him of gutting the Navy and the Air Force. He has said in the past that he would increase the defense budget by at least $30 billion a year. This line continues to get applause at the American Enterprise Institute and Conservative Political Action Conference. The Republican elite remains committed to a hawkish, big-spending policy and will keep hammering Obama as a peacenik, the way Republicans have done to Democrats for the last 40 years. It won't resonate the way it used to, however, because too many ordinary conservatives have lost the faith. Paul arouses plenty of antipathy with his attacks on U.S. foreign policy, but he also gets a great deal of applause -- more than Romney ever gets when he calls for more ships and planes. Polls consistently find that Americans are prepared to accept serious cuts in defense spending.

What does this mean for Obama? First, it's unlikely he'll pay any political price for the $450 billion in Pentagon cuts over the next decade mandated by Congress as part of the debt-reduction package. The public might not even balk at the additional $500 billion or so in automatic cuts triggered by the failure of the bipartisan budget panel. It's not 2004 anymore, and Democrats can no longer be mau-mau'ed on defense spending the way they have been for so long. I'm not sure, though, that the Obama administration is convinced of this. Gordon Adams, a leading Pentagon number-cruncher with the Stimson Center, says, "The president doesn't think he has political leeway, even though he does."

The fact that a Democratic administration can make deep cuts in defense spending does not, of course, mean it should. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that trillion-dollar cuts would have a devastating effect on national security. Three senior administration officials I've spoken to on the subject sided with Panetta -- which makes Romney's claim in the South Carolina debate that Obama favored a trillion-dollar cut a particularly brazen lie. Yet both former Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and current far-right-wing Sen. Tom Coburn have recently issued reports calling for cuts of that magnitude. So has Kori Schake, a certified hawk who served in George W. Bush's White House (and, full disclosure, is also a fellow contributor to Foreign Policy). I find their arguments convincing, and I find it odd for the Obama administration now to be standing to the right of such folk.

Of course "we live in a dangerous world," as hawks always remind us. The fact that Vinyard, the Vietnam vet, and Gregory, the state senator, don't lie awake at night worrying about Beijing's designs on the South China Sea doesn't make China any less threatening. But do we really live in a more dangerous world than we did at the height of the Cold War, when spending never rose above $580 billion in current dollars -- $120 billion less than the budget Obama inherited from Bush? A report from the Center for American Progress states, "President Obama would need to reduce the budget by about 40 percent, or close to $300 billion, to reach the budget levels established by Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Clinton."

This debate will not end with the 2012 election -- no matter who wins. But when an ultraconservative congressman from South Carolina can issue warnings about the military-industrial complex, you know you're in a different place.

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