What’s $2 Trillion Among Friends?

Romney criticizes Obama's defense plan, but the real problem is his own running mate.

Since announcing that he was a candidate for president, Governor Romney has continually criticized the Obama administration for what he claims are the president's severe and unnecessary reductions in defense spending. According to Romney, Obama would make massive cuts in defense spending that could decimate the U.S. military by returning the armed forces to their pre-World War II levels. Romney's doomsday scenarios have been echoed by conservative commentators like Robert Kagan, Dov Zakheim, Mackenzie Eaglen, Tom Donnelly, and Arthur Herman.

But close analysis reveals not only that these claims are overblown, but that if anyone is responsible for the defense budget failing to keep pace with the increases of the past decade, it is Romney's own running mate, Paul Ryan.

To see why, it is necessary to go back to early 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration. In February 2008, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates presented an FY 2009 budget request which projected that the defense budget would reach $544 billion in FY 2012. Three years later, in February 2011, President Obama requested $553 billion in defense spending, an increase of $9 billion over what the outgoing Bush administration had said was necessary to provide for the common defense.

While Congress was considering Obama's request for FY 2012, however, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, led by Congressman Ryan, refused to raise the debt ceiling unless Obama agreed to the Budget Control Act (BCA). Among other things, this act mandated that President Obama could request "only" $6 trillion in defense spending over the FY 2013-2022 period, $487 billion less than he had projected a year before. Thus, for FY 2013, Obama requested $551 billion for the base defense budget, $3 billion less than he had requested the year before.


To deal with the reductions mandated by the BCA, Obama and the U.S. military leadership developed a new defense strategy that the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff publicly supported in testimony they gave before Congress. But after listening to their testimony, Rep. Ryan said that he did not think "the generals [were] giving us their true advice" regarding the Obama budget. Essentially he accused them of lying -- an accusation that General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he found personally offensive. Ryan went on to say that Obama's FY 2013 budget compelled the Pentagon to create a budget-driven strategy, not a strategy-driven budget.

To say the least, Ryan's comments about Obama's defense plan were disingenuous, given his central role in bringing about the defense cuts. Ryan not only voted for the BCA, which mandated the cuts in the first place, but, as noted by the Project on Defense Alternatives, his own budget plan called for an FY 2013 defense budget of $554 billion, a mere 0.7 percent difference from Obama's supposedly "decimating budget."  Ryan argued that Obama's defense plan would call into doubt America's "unquestioned ability to defeat any foe." But from FY 2014-17 (encompassing Obama's second or Romney's first term), Ryan's own budget plan would spend only $45 billion or 2 percent more on national defense than Obama's plan. Of course, you won't hear that on the GOP campaign trail.

However, unlike Obama's proposal, Ryan's plan does undermine our national security by slashing the other pillars of our national security, like funds for international affairs. Specifically, Ryan's budget would cut the international affairs budget from its current level of $47.8 billion to $38.3 billion over the next five years, a nominal reduction of 20 percent and a real reduction of 30 percent. This devastation of the non-military tools of foreign policy goes against the advice of military leaders like Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued that foreign policy is still too dominated by the Department of Defense. To put this in perspective, Ryan's approximately $10 billion in cuts would equal the entirety of what we spent in 2012 on all diplomatic and consular programs or all international security assistance. The cuts could also be accommodated by completely eliminating USAID -- nine times over.  Experts acknowledge that the modern military relies on the regional and linguistic expertise of State Department and USAID personnel for many core missions. Such cooperation would be crippled by Ryan's budget, further militarizing our foreign policy.

Ryan was hypocritical in voting for the BCA and then criticizing the president and the Pentagon for abiding by it, but that's not where his responsibility for this impasse ends. Ryan was also a member of the Bowles-Simpson National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which recommended cutting projected defense spending by $973 billion over the next decade, twice the amount mandated by the BCA. Although Ryan did not endorse the Commission's findings, that was because the final report included new revenues (i.e., tax increases). Ryan never mentioned defense cuts as being problematic. And he has actually criticized Obama for failing to embrace the non-revenue sections of the Commission's findings.

Now, while Rep. Ryan's plan may seem like a bad idea, it pales in comparison to the vague promises made by Gov. Romney. The Republican presidential candidate has pledged to set the Pentagon base budget (not counting war funding) "at a floor of 4 percent of GDP," which, adjusting for inflation, would result in $2.3 trillion in added spending over the next decade compared to the plan presented to Congress by the Obama administration -- and, interestingly, $2.1 trillion more than Rep. Ryan advocated. Gov. Romney has not elaborated on what specific threats prompt him to call for this huge military buildup, which would take the defense budget, in constant dollars, to levels not seen since the Second World War.

Instead of criticizing Obama's defense cuts, Republicans should focus more on the difference between Romney and Ryan's defense plans. After all, the difference between Romney and Ryan's spending plans is ten times greater than the difference between Ryan and Obama's budget. But what's $2 trillion among friends?


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The Sino-Japanese Naval War of 2012

OK, it's probably not going to happen. But if it did, who would win?

Lord Wellington depicted the allied triumph at Waterloo as "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life." Wellington's verdict would describe the likely outcome should Chinese and Japanese forces meet in battle over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or elsewhere off the Northeast Asian seaboard. Such a fight appeared farfetched before 2010, when Japan's Coast Guard apprehended Chinese fishermen who rammed one of its vessels off the disputed islands, but it appears more likely now. After Japan detained and deported Chinese activists who landed on the disputed islands in mid-August, a hawkish Chinese major general, Luo Yuan, called on China to dispatch 100 boats to defend the Diaoyus. In an op-ed published Aug. 20, the nationalistic Chinese broadsheet Global Times warned, "Japan will pay a price for its actions ... and the result will be far worse than they anticipated."

This is more than mere posturing. In July, China's East Sea Fleet conducted an exercise simulating an amphibious assault on the islands. China's leaders are clearly thinking about the unthinkable. And with protesters taking to the streets to smash Japanese cars and attack sushi restaurants, their people may be behind them. So who would win the unlikely prospect of a clash of titans in the Pacific: China or Japan?

Despite Japan's latter-day image as a military pushover, a naval war would not be a rout for China. While the Japanese postwar "peace" constitution "forever renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes," the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has accumulated several pockets of material excellence, such as undersea warfare, since World War II. And Japanese mariners are renowned for their professionalism. If commanders manage their human, material, and geographic advantages artfully, Tokyo could make a maritime war with China a close-run thing -- and perhaps even prevail.

Past naval wars between the two rivals set the stage for today's island controversy. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, a fleet engagement turned Asia's Sinocentric order upside down in an afternoon. The Imperial Japanese Navy, hurriedly cobbled together from imported hulls and components following Japan's Meiji Restoration, smashed China's Beiyang Fleet, a force widely considered superior in material terms. The September 1894 Battle of the Yalu River was won by the navy with superior seamanship, gunnery, and morale. While Japan is no longer a rising power, the JMSDF has preserved a culture of human excellence.

If a rerun of the Battle of the Yalu takes place, how would Japan's navy match up against China's? This is admittedly an improbable scenario. A straightforward China-on-Japan war is doubtful unless Beijing manages to isolate Tokyo diplomatically -- as wise practitioners of limited war attempt to do -- or Tokyo isolates itself through foolish diplomacy. Barring that, a conflict would probably ensnare the United States as an active combatant on the Japanese side. War is a political act -- "statesmanship directing arms," as naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan puts it -- but let's discount politics for now and look at the prospects of war in strictly military terms, as a contest between Chinese and Japanese sea power.

In raw numerical terms, there is no contest. Japan's navy boasts 48 "major surface combatants," ships designed to attack enemy main fleets while taking a pounding themselves. For the JMSDF these include "helicopter destroyers," or light aircraft carriers; guided-missile destroyers equipped with the state-of-the-art Aegis combat system, a combination radar, computer, and fire-control system found in frontline U.S. Navy warships; and an assortment of lesser destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. A squadron of 16 diesel-electric submarines augments the surface fleet. Juxtapose this against the PLA Navy's 73 major surface combatants, 84 missile-firing patrol craft, and 63 submarines, and the bidding appears grim for Japan. China's navy is far superior in sheer weight of steel.

But raw numbers can be misleading, for three main reasons. First, as strategist Edward Luttwak has observed, weapons are like "black boxes" until actually used in combat: no one knows for sure whether they will perform as advertised. Battle, not technical specifications, is the true arbiter of military technology's value. Accurately forecasting how ships, planes, and missiles will perform amid the stresses and chaos of combat thus verges on impossible. This is especially true, adds Luttwak, when conflict pits an open society against a closed one. Open societies have a habit of debating their military failings in public, whereas closed societies tend to keep their deficiencies out of view. Luttwak was referring to the U.S.-Soviet naval competition, but it applies to Sino-Japanese competition as well. The Soviet Navy appeared imposing on paper. But Soviet warships on the high seas during the Cold War showed unmistakable symptoms of decay, from slipshod shiphandling to rusty hulls. The PLA Navy could be hiding something as well. The quality of the JMSDF's platforms, and its human capabilities, could partially or wholly offset the PLA's advantage of numbers.

Second, there's the human variable in warfare. In his classic account, The Naval War of 1812, Theodore Roosevelt explained the U.S. Navy's success in single-ship duels against Britain's Royal Navy as a product of quality ship design and construction and superior fighting prowess: in other words, of material and human factors. The latter is measured in seamanship, gunnery, and the myriad of traits that set one navy apart from others. Mariners hone these traits not by sitting in port and polishing their equipment but by going to sea. JMSDF flotillas ply Asian waters continually, operating solo or with other navies. The PLA Navy is inert by comparison. With the exception of a counter-piracy deployment to the Gulf of Aden that began in 2009, Chinese fleets emerge only for brief cruises or exercises, leaving crews little time to develop an operating rhythm, learn their profession, or build healthy habits. The human edge goes to Japan.

And three, it's misleading to reduce the problem solely to fleets. There will be no purely fleet-on-fleet engagement in Northeast Asia. Geography situated the two Asian titans close to each other: their landmasses, including outlying islands, are unsinkable aircraft carriers and missile firing platforms. Suitably armed and fortified, land-based sites constitute formidable implements of sea power. So we need to factor in both countries' land-based firepower.

Japan forms the northern arc of the first island chain that envelops the Asian coastline, forming the eastern frontier of the Yellow and East China seas. No island between the Tsushima Strait (which separates Japan from Korea) and Taiwan lies more than 500 miles off China's coast. Most, including the Senkakus/Diaoyus, are far closer. Within these cramped waters, any likely battleground would fall within range of shore-based firepower. Both militaries field tactical aircraft that boast the combat radius to strike throughout the Yellow and East China seas and into the Western Pacific. Both possess shore-fired anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and can add their hitting power to the mix.

There are some asymmetries, however. PLA conventional ballistic missiles can strike at land sites throughout Asia, putting Japanese assets at risk before they ever leave port or take to the sky. And China's Second Artillery Corps, or missile force, has reportedly fielded anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) able to strike at moving ships at sea from the mainland. With a range estimated at more than 900 miles, the ASBM could strike anywhere in the China seas, at seaports throughout the Japanese islands, and far beyond.

Consider the Senkakus, the hardest assets to defend from the Japanese standpoint. They lie near the southwestern tip of the Ryukyu chain, closer to Taiwan than to Okinawa or Japan's major islands. Defending them from distant bases would be difficult. But if Japan forward-deployed Type 88 ASCMs -- mobile, easily transportable anti-ship weapons -- and missile crews to the islets and to neighboring islands in the Ryukyu chain, its ground troops could generate overlapping fields of fire that would convert nearby seas into no-go zones for Chinese shipping. Once dug in, they would be tough to dislodge, even for determined Chinese rocketeers and airmen.

Whoever forges sea, land, and air forces into the sharpest weapon of sea combat stands a good chance of prevailing. That could be Japan if its political and military leaders think creatively, procure the right hardware, and arrange it on the map for maximum effect. After all, Japan doesn't need to defeat China's military in order to win a showdown at sea, because it already holds the contested real estate; all it needs to do is deny China access. If Northeast Asian seas became a no-man's land but Japanese forces hung on, the political victory would be Tokyo's.

Japan also enjoys the luxury of concentrating its forces at home, whereas the PLA Navy is dispersed into three fleets spread along China's lengthy coastline. Chinese commanders face a dilemma: If they concentrate forces to amass numerical superiority during hostilities with Japan, they risk leaving other interests uncovered. It would hazardous for Beijing to leave, say, the South China Sea unguarded during a conflict in the northeast.

And finally, Chinese leaders would be forced to consider how far a marine war would set back their sea-power project. China has staked its economic and diplomatic future in large part on a powerful oceangoing navy. In December 2006, President Hu Jintao ordered PLA commanders to construct "a powerful people's navy" that could defend the nation's maritime lifelines -- in particular sea lanes that connect Indian Ocean energy exporters with users in China -- "at any time." That takes lots of ships. If it lost much of the fleet in a Sino-Japanese clash -- even in a winning effort -- Beijing could see its momentum toward world-power status reversed in an afternoon.

Here's hoping China's political and military leaders understand all this. If so, the Great Sino-Japanese Naval War of 2012 won't be happening outside these pages.