2010 September


Sen. Thune on Defending the Defense Budget

by Tim Sullivan

Yesterday at AEI, Senator John Thune, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, discussed his strategy for reining in government spending and reducing the national debt, as proposed in the Deficit Reduction and Budget Reform Act of 2010. Early in his remarks, Senator Thune cited Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen’s recent comment that the most significant threat to our national security is our debt. I took the opportunity to ask the Senator about the future outlook for the defense budget, which appears increasingly grim as bipartisan pressure mounts to limit Pentagon spending.

Senator Thune’s response was encouraging. While noting first that there are certainly some savings to be found within Pentagon’s current budget, and making clear that his proposed committee on deficit reduction wouldn’t hesitate to pursue them, he also pointed out that the United States is spending below traditional targets for defense, and by doing so risks falling behind some of our potential adversaries, namely China:

This joint committee on deficit reduction would not in any way be limited from taking on issues with respect to the defense budget. Now I happen to believe…that we could do a lot better in terms of acquisition and contracting, procurement….We clearly have some inefficiencies. When you have a budget as large as the defense budget is, you’re going to have some of those. And I think that those issues were partly tackled through the acquisition reform legislation that passed last year…but there’s a lot more than can be done.

In terms of where we need to be spending defense money and how much we need to spend on it, you know there’s always been this belief that we ought to spend at least somewhere around four percent of GDP…We’re under that, in terms of annual year over year defense spending. When you add in the additional spending that’s outside the budget for the war on terror, you get closer to that GDP number.

But the concern I have about defense spending today is the gap that we are starting to see between our capability and that of some of our—not adversaries, but certainly potential adversaries—around the world. China continues to spend heavily on their military, and to me, if you don’t get national security right, the rest is conversation. You have to fundamentally make sure that you are prepared not only to fight the wars of today, but the wars of tomorrow. So that is one area of the budget I don’t think you can short when it comes to being prepared…

What’s more, the Senator went on to note, defense spending is hardly the primary driver of debt:

If you look at the budget as a big pie, a big part of it, of course, is entitlement programs. And you can’t fundamentally, in the long term at least, deal with the budget until you deal with social security, Medicare, Medicaid. And that’s where the money is. Not to say that there aren’t savings that can be found in defense, and this committee would not be limited to finding those savings, as well.

All in all, Senator Thune presented a very sensible approach to defense spending in period of fiscal constraint. It’s reasonable to seek savings and efficiencies, as Defense Secretary Gates is doing currently, but it would be strategically irresponsible—with the nation at war and new threats looming on the horizon—to subject the defense budget to deep cuts.

(flickr/DoD photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua J. Seybert, U.S. Air Force/Released)

An Uninformed Debate on China

by Michael Mazza

Thomas Barnett on Monday posted on his blog a highly critical and utterly errant response to Andrew Krepinevich’s Saturday op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. If you haven’t yet done so, the op-ed is worth reading. Krepinevich draws attention to China’s ongoing military modernization—in particular, its anti-access/area denial capabilities—and argues that Beijing’s goal is to “Finlandize” the countries of the Western Pacific. This is, apparently, an argument that Barnett simply won’t countenance, and his criticism oddly sacrifices good sense in favor of needless hostility. Barnett’s criticism is so problematic that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but to respond to some of his points:

Of course, we might outspend everybody by gajillions and yet our stuff is sooooooo easy to counter, but China is going to pull off this amazing collection of high-tech hijinks the very first time and it’ll be so amazingly hard to counter.

First of all, straight-up U.S.-China defense spending comparisons are useless. They do not take into account the fact that the U.S. and China have different responsibilities—China’s are local, while America’s are global. Such comparisons also ignore, for example, that labor is cheaper in China. American soldiers get paid much more than do their Chinese counterparts—and that does not necessarily have any implications for the relative quality of those soldiers.

Secondly, “our stuff” is not “sooooooo easy to counter.” America has dominated the high seas since the end of World War II and, at present, continues to do so. China, though, has launched a concerted, fifteen-year effort to figure out how to counter what Jan van Tol calls the “American way of war.” Why Barnett has so much trouble believing that a country as industrious as China could be successful in this effort is a mystery to me.

Third, Krepinevich nowhere in his article argues that China’s new capabilities will “be so amazingly hard to counter.” Still, Barnett’s dismissal of the potential threat of those capabilities is odd. The United States Navy has never been faced with the threat soon to be posed by anti-ship ballistic missiles—why should the Pentagon be expected to have an immediate solution to the problem? Surely Barnett is generally familiar with the complexity of missile defense. Surely he is aware of China’s aggressive buildup of increasingly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles. Maybe he is aware of the difficulty coalition forces had countering the Scud missile threat during the first Gulf war. So why is he so dismissive of China’s missile forces, which in many ways are the backbone of the military threat Beijing poses?

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Building Partnership Capacity

by Tom Donnelly

Reports indicate that Congress is about to be notified of a $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which would represent perhaps the largest single arms package in U.S. history, and, let us hope, the first of many future efforts to supply the allies—pardon me, “strategic partners”—we need for the future with the kinds of advanced weaponry necessary to deal with the most pressing threats.

The phrase “building partnership capacity” was introduced into the Pentagon’s lexicon by the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review—the final review conducted under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  While the idea—helping to train and equip non-U.S. forces who are part of or might be a part of a coalition—is broad and hardly new, the focus in 2006 was immediately on building the Afghan and Iraqi armies and on counterinsurgency and counterterror operations:

Recent efforts to build partnership capacity also highlight the importance of flexible access to funding through programs such as the Commander’s Emergency Response Program and Train and Equip authorities for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Expanding authorities to build on the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan will help enable the United States to defeat terrorist networks wherever they are located. Congress is urged to work alongside the Department to provide the full set of authorities needed to build security partnerships to fight the war on terror.

These efforts to improve partners’ irregular warfare capabilities were, and remain, a critical element of what we now call “The Long War.”  But the sale and upgrade of F-15 strike fighters to the Saudis has much more to do with Iran’s nuclear program and its bid for dominance in the Persian Gulf than with, say, suppressing the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda.  Even more fundamentally, it is about a deeper level of security cooperation in the face of a threat that is already more immediately destabilizing and mortally dangerous to the region than any insurgent or terror group.  That certainly is the perspective of the Gulf Arab states, who also understand that the United States is their only potential guarantor against Iran.  Thus, simultaneously with the Saudi sale, the United Arab Emirates, who were all but committed to the French Rafale fighter, have requested technical information on the U.S. F/A-18E/F “Super Hornet.” It’s unclear whether this is a tactic on Abu Dhabi’s part to get a better price from Paris—the French are charging a hefty premium to upgrade their standard Rafale, a plane that has yet to win any export market—or a move with a deeper geopolitical and strategic motivation.  Whatever the reason, it is time for the United States—meaning not only the Pentagon, but the White House—to take a more strategic approach to arms sales and to its own weapons development.  Indeed, it ought to be a rule of thumb for the immediate future that American high-technology, conventional systems should be designed, built, and bought with “building partnership capacity” very much in mind.

America will need two sets of strategic partners, in particular.  One set is needed to offset a nuclear Iran with ambitions of regional hegemony.  The other is required to balance China’s more ambitious military modernization efforts and its desire to become a global presence.

The Saudi sale brings the need for an “Iran containment” coalition into sharper focus.  To be sure, the prospect of “containing” Iran is likely to be fraught with crises and uncertainties as harrowing as any of the crises of Cold War containment of the Soviet Union.  The notion of containment is thrown around far too blithely, and will require immense efforts and a continued and almost surely expanded presence of U.S. forces in the region; the nature of America’s posture may change, but the U.S. Central Command “area of operations” will be a busy one, regardless of what happens in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Beyond the capabilities represented by the sale of additional and upgrade of existing Saudi F-15s and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, Riyadh and other Gulf states need urgent help with missile defenses and naval forces.  One emerging U.S. system that could address both requirements would be an Aegis-equipped version of the Littoral Combat Ship, an idea that the Saudis have expressed serious interest in.  The U.S. Navy is on the verge of selecting a final design for that ship, and while obviously the first priority is its own requirements, the ability to rapidly export at least the basic ship design and to make a “mini-Aegis” version ought to be weighed almost as heavily.

The second set of candidates for high-end partnership-building consideration is in East Asia.  Japan very much wanted and was willing to pay an extraordinary premium for the F-22 Raptor, and is now anxious to participate in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.  South Korea is also considering the Lightning for its next generation fighter.  Both countries very much need to modernize their tactical aircraft.  Not surprisingly, as Chinese naval capacity grows, particularly its submarine fleet, both Japan and Korea are looking to upgrade their own navies.  Australia—a formal F-35 partner already—is in a similar position.   As in the Persian Gulf, the United States is both the security and defense industrial partner of choice; the emerging arms race (there is no other term for it) in the region is increasing the demand both for closer operational cooperation and interoperable systems.

Finally, the jewel in the crown—a strategic partnership that will go a long way toward solving the Iran problem and forestalling any China problems—is India.  To be sure, India’s strategic aspirations far exceed its military grasp, but Delhi’s long-term importance cannot be underscored.  Not only will India’s rise do as much to determine the international order of the 21st century as China’s, but the Indian Ocean littoral will be a central theater of international competition.

Building a strategic partnership with India, a signature initiative of the Bush years that has, to put it euphemistically, been relegated to the back burner by the Obama Administration, is bound to be a long-term project.  How to deal with Iran will be among the most difficult issues to resolve, even while worries over China provide a good deal of common ground.  But in addition to top-down views of grand strategy, any functional partnership—even if never consecrated in a formal alliance—will also depend on bottom-up, practical defense cooperation.

The pace of joint military exercises between U.S. and Indian forces has steadily risen.  But defense industrial cooperation has lagged behind what it needs to be, despite some high-profile India purchases like C-17 transports and P-8 maritime patrol aircraft.  India, too, stands at the verge of selecting a new fighter; to shift India from its long-time relationship with Russian suppliers, in the face of very competitive offers and government efforts from the Europeans, ought to be a strategic imperative for the United States.  Both the F-16 and F/A-18 are in the running, and the issue will no doubt be one of the central topics discussed during President Obama’s November trip to Delhi.  This past week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the administration wanted to take the U.S.-India relationship “to the next level,” but the first order of business is simply to restore the era of good feelings that pervaded the Bush years.  The president ought not only to stress the importance of the immediate fighter competition, but make it clear that he will work to offer the fifth-generation F-35 to the Indians.

Given the tough economy and the state of the U.S. defense industrial base, the temptation for the White House is to frame these arms deals as a question of jobs, jobs, jobs.  Indeed, these programs do mean that thousands of very highly skilled manufacturing workers will keep their jobs.  But the strategic rationale for “building partnership capacity” with high-technology systems originated long before the recession and will endure for decades beyond recovery.

(flickr/DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Hummel, U.S. Air Force/Released)

Taking Off the Pack

by Tim Sullivan

This week’s edition of the Economist features articles about the likely defense budget cuts on the horizon in Britain and Canada, two of the United States’ fightin’est allies in recent years. Canada and Britain are, much like the United States, contending with the costs of extensive entitlement programs, mounting deficits, and publics increasingly exhausted by years of war. Such conditions, as well as the prospect of a diminishing combat role for coalition forces in Afghanistan over the next four years, have led to an impulse among leaders in both counties to eye defense budgets as the ideal bill-payer. In the case of Britain, where dramatic cuts would surely hasten the hollowing of the country’s armed forces, the Economist presented a strong argument (similar to some of those put forward in defense of America’s own imperiled defense budget) as to why that would be unwise:

“…A militarily active Britain is good for both it and the world. For all the pain of Iraq and Afghanistan, most Britons still think of their country as a robust and benevolent global force. As a trading, island nation, Britain has as much interest as anyone in enforcing international rules. Moreover, advocates of a much humbler military posture underestimate the rewards military dynamism brings: in Britain’s relationship with America and its clout at the United Nations and elsewhere. Leaving America to carry even more of the burden of global security would be mistaken and unfair. As for the notion that other rich nations should do more—that’s true, but a British retreat would be unlikely to encourage them.

Nevertheless, the article goes on to suggest that, assuming some cuts are bound to occur, Britain can make do with three instead of four Trident submarines, “the air force can do its job with fewer aeroplanes, and the army, when it finally leaves Afghanistan, could shrink.”

In Canada, meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s desire to “revive Canada’s leadership in the world”—an effort which involved increasing Canadian defense spending and extending the country’s mission in Afghanistan—is threatening to give way to deep defense cuts, as well. According to the Economist, “the prime minister has recently hinted that fiscal discipline may now trump military ambition,” by making “promises to cut its C$49 billion deficit to $1.8 billion by 2014-15 through spending cuts alone”—savings enabled by the scheduled departure of Canadian forces from Afghanistan in 2011.

What does all this mean for the United States? It suggests, first and foremost, that despite our allies’ best intentions to the contrary, the United States will continue to bear the central costs of maintaining the current global security architecture. It also calls into question the viability of the “cooperative approaches” and burden-sharing arrangements envisioned in the 2010 National Security Strategy and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks at CFR last week, which will have little utility if our allies have neither the resources nor the political will to bring military power to bear. And it thus provides greater clarity as to what’s at stake in the defense spending debate brewing in Washington: if the United States won’t be the world’s policeman, who will?

(Photo: flickr/BigOssie66)

The PLA’s Policy Goals

by Michael Mazza

In yesterday’s Washington Times, Richard Bush expresses puzzlement over the PLA’s continued build-up across the Taiwan Strait when cross-Strait ties have seen so much improvement. He writes:

The [2010 DOD report on China’s military power] concludes that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acquisition of capabilities relevant to Taiwan continues without any reduction; deployments of advanced assets opposite the island have not eased; and the military balance continues to shift in China’s favor. It judges that China is acquiring capabilities in the service of three objectives: to deter Taiwanese independence; to influence Taiwan to settle on Beijing’s terms; and to “deter, delay or deny possible U.S. support for the island in case of conflict.” China thus seeks to enhance its options while restricting those of Taiwan and the United States.

Bush wonders why this military buildup has continued, contending that the reason “is something of a mystery.” Given the opacity of China’s government, and of its military in particular, this mystery is, unfortunately, difficult to resolve.

One possible explanation is that the PLA plays an important role in driving policy. China’s political leaders may recognize, as Bush contends, that the military buildup is counterproductive, that “China only hurts its cause by acting ways that lead Taiwanese citizens to vote on the basis of their fears rather than their hopes.” But those political leaders are heavily dependent on the People’s Liberation Army and the rest of China’s security apparatus for their survival. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre made this abundantly clear; recent years’ unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang have reinforced the notion that force may be ultimately necessary to uphold the regime’s legitimacy.

Given its role in guaranteeing regime survival, the PLA most certainly has a seat at the table where policy is shaped and may be able to ensure that the military build-up opposite Taiwan continues. Still, why would the PLA do so? The PLA has, since 1949, seen “reclamation” of the “lost province” as one of its primary goals, and the central government has repeatedly reinforced the importance of Taiwan’s unification with the mainland. Ceasing the military build-up would be akin to asking the PLA to abandon one of its driving purposes. This is not something any military institution can do easily. The PLA is likely powerful enough to successfully resist any such change.


Tough Talk on China

by Michael Mazza

When it comes to Asia policy, the administration has adopted some encouraging rhetoric as of late. The most recent example came yesterday in Secretary Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. She explained that a major goal of the president’s foreign policy over the past year “has been to deepen engagement” with China, India, Brazil, and other “emerging centers of influence.” Nothing new there. But in explaining the challenges America faces in working with these countries, she hinted that the United States is finally hitting on the proper China policy:

Now, working with these emerging powers is not always smooth or easy. Disagreements are inevitable. And on certain issues such as human rights with China or Russian occupation of Georgia, we simply do not see eye to eye, and the United States will not hesitate to speak out and stand our ground. When these nations do no accept the responsibility that accrues with expanding influence, we will do all that we can to encourage them to change course while we will press ahead with other partners. But we know it will be difficult, if not impossible, to forge the kind of future that we expect in the 21st century without enhanced comprehensive cooperation.

While I would question Secretary Clinton’s assertion that the administration has spoken out on Chinese human rights, the U.S. has recently stood its ground on other issues, most notably on Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. (For a discussion of recent U.S.-China disputes, see here). The rhetoric is itself encouraging; that there has been action to match it gives hope that China policy over the coming year will be more successful than it has been.

I recently argued that the administration was working its way towards a more effective policy for dealing with Beijing:

With an honest recognition that the United States and China share some interests but not others, the president should, sooner or later, settle on the proper course: to cooperate with China on issues where goals intersect, and to vigorously defend those U.S. interests that China threatens.

President Obama finally seems to be adopting this approach. Better late than never.

(flickr/Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Stopping New START

by David J. Trachtenberg

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and AEI Senior Fellow John Bolton scores a direct hit on the New START treaty.  He correctly notes that the treaty’s limits on launchers will force trade-offs that constrain the U.S. ability to deploy conventional prompt global strike capabilities.  “We will pay for this mistake in future conflicts entirely unrelated to Russia,” he warns.

Indeed, while the Obama Administration is looking to develop prompt global strike capabilities to maintain American conventional military dominance and enable further U.S. nuclear reductions, the Nuclear Posture Review acknowledges that they “would be accountable under the [New START] Treaty.”

More significantly, Bolton argues that linking the level of U.S. nuclear weaponry to that of Russia presents a false equilibrium.  America’s need for defense flexibility is greater than Russia’s as the United States has global responsibilities that Russia does not.  As Bolton puts it, “Nominally equal limitations can have dramatically unequal consequences in the real world.”

The rest of Bolton’s commentary on New START is worth reading and builds upon criticisms voiced by other treaty opponents.  These criticisms have slowed the Senate’s drive toward quick New START ratification.  Given growing concerns over the treaty’s flaws, such an outcome is looking less certain than treaty supporters had originally hoped.

(Photo: flickr/Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

This morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered an address at the Council on Foreign Relations in which she outlined a U.S. “strategy for global leadership.” The Secretary’s remarks opened with a refreshing reaffirmation of America’s exceptional role in the world:

“Solving foreign policy problems today requires us to think regionally and globally, to see the intersections and connections linking nations and regions and interests, and to bring people together as only America can. The world is counting on us. When old adversaries need an honest broker or fundamental freedoms need a champion, people turn to us. When the earth shakes or rivers overflow their banks, when pandemics rage or simmering tensions burst into violence, the world looks to us. I see it on the faces of the people I meet as I travel…not just the young people who dream about America’s promise of opportunity and equality, but also seasoned diplomats and political leaders. They see the principled commitment and can-do spirit that comes with American engagement. And they look to America not just to engage, but to lead.”

Early in her speech, Secretary Clinton also noted that the Obama administration remains “committed to maintaining the greatest military in the history of the world and, if needed, to vigorously defending our friends and ourselves.” This is, on its face, an encouraging sentiment, and one which deserved greater treatment in the course of the Secretary’s remarks.

The extent to which America’s global leadership rests on a foundation of military strength simply cannot be overstated. The United States’ ability to respond rapidly to natural disasters and intervene in brewing crises depends to a great degree on the unmatched transport, mobility, and logistics assets of its armed forces. Without the U.S. Navy’s global reach or the Army’s capacity for rapid mobilization, for example, the initial relief efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and this year’s earthquake in Haiti would have looked much different.

The American military also retains primary responsibility for policing the global commons—the air, seas, and space—and thus enabling the secure transit and trade that fuels the global economy. And although the Secretary was right to note that today’s complex international challenges demand cooperative, multilateral solutions, it is likewise important to acknowledge that American military power and security assurances have long been the sine qua non of the United States’ most effective alliances and partnerships in Europe and in Asia—think of the U.S. role in NATO during the Cold War, or America’s nuclear guarantees to South Korea and Japan.

No other country can claim as significant a role in maintaining international security and stability as the United States. As Secretary Clinton noted pointedly this morning, we are still waiting for rising and resurgent powers like China and Russia to “accept the responsibility that accrues with their expanding influence.”

Yet as the United States struggles to rein in spending and tackle its mounting debt, the U.S. defense budget is likely to become increasingly imperiled. Some have suggested that in light of the country’s economic woes, current levels of military spending are simply unsustainable—an argument which seems to have resonance within the administration (and one which colleagues of mine have sought to refute here and here). Within Congress, there are already growing calls to reap the peace dividend afforded by the conclusion of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

But if the United States hopes to retain the leadership role Secretary Clinton described this morning, it cannot afford to short-change defense. America’s armed forces already shoulder a disproportionate burden in the maintenance of international security. They cannot be asked to do more with less. And America cannot hope to lead but from a position of strength.

(Photo: flickr/DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Hall, U.S. Navy/Released)

Asia’s Precarious Balance of Power

by CDS Editors

Last week at Foreign Policy’s “Shadow Government” blog, AEI’s Dan Blumenthal illustrated just how dramatically the United States’ ability to project power in Asia has waned in the last 15 years:

Today the balance of power in Asia is shifting. Since the end of World War II, Washington has kept the peace in Asia through its forward presence of military forces and its uncontested ability to project force into the region. Take an example from just 14 years ago. Realizing how destabilizing were China’s missile tests conducted in the waters around Taiwan, President Clinton sent carrier battle groups near the Taiwan Strait. The missile tests stopped, Taiwan held its elections, and conflict was avoided.

Today, any president would think twice about doing the same. Why? China has arguably gained conventional supremacy around its periphery. Without remediation this could become a hard fact. China’s growing short-range missile arsenal (maybe up to 1,500) and fleet of modern aircraft could not only be used to destroy much of Taiwan, but could also be used to strike devastating blows against U.S. forces in Japan. Together with its fast-growing submarine fleet, the Chinese missile force will, within the next decade, be able to cause serious harm to U.S. carriers steaming into the region.

Beijing has been focused like a laser beam on how to coerce and intimidate Taiwan while deterring U.S. and Japanese intervention. Washington has not given the same attention to defense. Our shipbuilding program has atrophied, our ability to protect the bases from which our aircraft fly is non-existent, and there is nothing in the current navy or air force programs of record that demonstrate our attentiveness to this problem.

For more on how the United States has taken its eye off the ball in Asia, read the full post here.

(Photo: flickr/U.S. Navy photo by Cmdr. Ed Thompson, commanding officer USS Harpers Ferry, LSD 49)