The reality of defense budget "sequestration" -- the threat of an across-the-board 10 percent cut to most of the Pentagon's spending accounts -- is now beginning to rattle policymakers in Washington. This week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called on defense contractors to issue hundreds of thousands of layoff notices to their workers, as a statute requires them to do 60 days before plant closings occur. Graham's openly expressed intent was to create political pressure on Congress to avert sequestration. Pentagon officials, who have so far refused to discuss any details concerning sequestration, may now be starting to open up a little. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has recently met with defense industry executives to discuss their plans for sequestration.
In a recent column, I discussed one effort to cope with defense cuts triple the size of those that have already been imposed. That analysis attempted to fashion a rational balance among cuts to force structure, modernization, readiness, and research spending.
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a defense think tank, recently submitted its own advice to struggling policymakers, "Strategy in Austerity," which examines two case studies of leading global powers coping with relative decline while facing a rapidly rising competitor. At the turn of the twentieth century, the British Empire was passing its peak just as Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany was rapidly ascending and asserting its strength. And in the 1970s, the United States had to deal with its failure in Southeast Asia and political and economic turmoil at home just as Soviet military power was swelling. The authors extract seven strategies policymakers in these two cases used to cope with the geostrategic challenges they faced.
The seven strategies include not only defense reforms but also diplomatic gambits and calculated risk-taking. How might the current generation of U.S. policymakers apply each of these strategies?
In the decades before World War I, Britain employed a new diplomatic strategy that outsourced a portion of its security burden to new allies and partners. France and Russia, formerly long-time rivals, became Britain's partners in an attempt to match Germany's growing power. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter developed an increasingly deep relationship with China in an effort to balance the Soviet Union and complicate its defense planning. Today, U.S. policymakers hope that a deepening relationship with India will offset China's growing influence and also help stabilize Afghanistan during the second half of the decade. U.S. policymakers are also counting on America's extensive network of alliances and partners in the western Pacific to share the security burden and provide diplomatic synergy against possible Chinese assertions.
In the 1970s, the United States negotiated with its principal rival, the Soviet Union, in an attempt to stabilize a strategic nuclear arms race. The resulting agreements on offensive nuclear forces and missile defenses possibly freed up some resources the Pentagon might have otherwise been forced to spend keeping up with expanding Soviet missile arsenals. If so, the United States benefited from these negotiations by having more funding for research on stealth aircraft technology and precision-guided munitions, which would later become substantial U.S. advantages. The United States and China might, in theory, find it economical to negotiate a halt to the escalating Pacific arms race. Regrettably, the track record of such attempts is poor, most often because one side sees a comparative advantage in weapons production.
The Pentagon will no doubt continue its perennial quest to employ defense resources more efficiently. At the turn of the twentieth century, Britain instituted substantial money-saving reforms to both its navy and army. The Royal Navy retired 150 obsolete ships that institutional interests had previously protected. A new manpower plan retained only skilled sailors on active service and relied on quickly filling unskilled crew positions after wars broke out. After the draining Boer War in South Africa, the British Army saved money by increasing its reliance on a reformed reservist system. Some defense analysts similarly believe the Pentagon could save money by shifting much of its ground combat power, especially tank-heavy units, to the reserves -- since these are the forces least likely to be needed on active duty after the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. As for finding savings in the rest of the Pentagon's sprawling bureaucracy, workers in the building regularly report sightings of waste, but somehow these ghosts always seem to elude the auditors.