Dollars and Sense on Defense

by David J. Trachtenberg

As expected, the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, co-chaired by former Democratic White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, was unable to achieve a consensus on a series of proposals for slashing the burgeoning budget deficit and reducing the country’s debt.  Part of the Bowles-Simpson recommendations call for significant defense cuts in an effort to rein in overall discretionary spending.  They proposed Pentagon cuts totaling $100 billion by 2015 to create “a leaner, more efficient Defense Department.”

Despite falling several votes shy of the minimum necessary to place the Commission’s recommendations before Congress, the Bowles-Simpson effort has provided a cloak of bipartisan respectability to those who favor greater Pentagon budget austerity.  Another group, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force, co-chaired by Alice Rivlin, former director of President Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget, and former Republican Senator Pete Domenici, has argued for a freeze on military spending over the next five years.

Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings has argued that “the case for pursuing about a 10 percent reduction in the core defense budget is strong enough to warrant serious consideration in the years ahead.”  Other analysts have not only echoed calls for defense cuts, some of them have even praised Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – a Republican holdover from the Bush Administration – for creating the conditions that allow them to be advanced in a bipartisan fashion.  One member of the Rivlin-Domenici panel declared that Secretary Gates “helpfully opened the door when he highlighted the need for savings.” Now Secretary Gates has been left trying to close the door, warning that Pentagon cuts of the magnitude being discussed would be “catastrophic,” while barely making a dent in deficit reduction.

Those combing through the defense recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson commission or the Rivlin-Domenici Task Force will find them devoid of rigorous analysis and grounded in oversimplified assertions and modern mythology.  Much of this mythology surrounding defense spending has been addressed by the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Foreign Policy Initiative in their joint “Defending Defense” project. Nevertheless, there is an enduring perception that defense spending is like all other discretionary spending and, therefore, must absorb its “fair share” of cutbacks.  In the words of one Washington Post commentator, it is time to “slash defense spending along with everything else.”

Defense spending, however, is not like “everything else.”  Simply put, the non-defense portion of discretionary spending is influenced exclusively by internal domestic considerations regarding competing social priorities.  On the other hand, investment in defense is heavily influenced by the threats others pose to American society, i.e., external events, many of which are beyond our control.

Freezing defense spending, as the Rivlin-Domenici Task Force proposes, might be acceptable if we could also freeze the threats to American security or the requirements imposed on us by our global responsibilities in a dangerous world.  Unfortunately, we cannot.

To argue against sharp defense budget cuts is not to argue in favor of wasteful expenditures.  No doubt greater efficiencies in Pentagon spending can be achieved at significant savings to the taxpayer.  But wholesale cuts to defense spending based on faulty assumptions, flawed logic, and the lack of intellectually rigorous analysis can have dangerous consequences.

Despite the lack of consensus on specifics, the pendulum seems to be swinging toward trimming future defense outlays.  Already there are reports that the Defense Department is being directed to reduce its budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 and to forfeit some of the savings realized through the Department’s efficiencies initiative. General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated he has “zero faith” the Pentagon’s will be allowed to reinvest all of the savings in higher-priority military programs.

As the Obama Administration prepares to submit its fiscal year 2012 defense budget request to the new Congress early next year, Americans should be reminded that an adequate defense is a necessity, not an option that can be purchased on the cheap.  It’s time for some common sense on defense.

David J. Trachtenberg is president and CEO of Shortwaver Consulting and a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, 2001-2003.

(flickr/Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Korean Security Update

by Michael Mazza

It’s been more than a week since North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island, yet the story has continued to garner much attention. This week has been marked by a number of developments:

  • the U.S. and South Korea concluded massive naval exercises in the Yellow Sea involving (finally) the USS George Washington;
  • South Korea’s intelligence chief warned that another North Korean attack is likely;
  • the South’s new defense minister threatened to launch airstrikes in response to any future North Korean aggression;
  • and, reportedly, the U.S. and South Korea have reached agreement on the long-stalled FTA.

As can be seen, the U.S. has wisely taken steps to demonstrate its commitment to the ROK this week, yet the situation on the peninsula remains unstable. As I argue in today’s LA Times, the U.S. can and should do more to beef up its deterrent in Northeast Asia, namely by increasing ground forces in the region. Check out the piece here.

(flickr/U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Adam K. Thomas)

ATR Has it Wrong on Defense

by Gary Schmitt

Americans for Tax Reform released a letter yesterday in which they rejected the idea that conservatives should abstain from cutting defense spending in an effort to rein in government spending. To nail home their point, the letter states that “Under President Bush, military spending averaged 3.9 percent of GDP. Under President Obama, it has averaged 4.9 percent, a full percentage point higher. It is outrageous to assume spending under the president who launched the War on Terror, started the Department of Homeland Security and began the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is not sufficient for even the most hawkish member of Congress.”

The letter is signed by a number of conservative luminaries (such as Grover Norquist, Brent Bozell, and Richard Viguerie) but is short on anyone who knows much about defense matters. And, indeed, their use of the above numbers reveals just how little they do know.

Although it’s true that from fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2009, defense spending was 3.9 percent of GDP, it is not the case that President Bush was fighting two wars all eight years; nor was President Bush fighting two wars with all the resources required, as the belated surge in Iraq in 2007 showed. And by fiscal 2009, the last budget the Bush team put together, the percent of GDP for defense had already risen to 4.6 percent. Equally important, the Bush administration took office in 2001 when the defense budget stood at a post-World War low as as a percent of GDP—just 3 percent. That fact, as much as anything, accounts for why the Bush average for defense spending per GDP is lower than the Obama administration’s.

Moreover, does anyone really think that, if the Constitution’s limit on terms had somehow been magically put aside and Bush had remained in office, that defense spending would not be just as high, or higher today? Would Bush have refused to replace equipment used in the war in Iraq? Would he have done less when it comes to the war on terror? Would he have ignored the increased operational and personnel costs of an all-volunteer force still at war? And, finally, would he have been less vigorous in pursuing the war in Afghanistan? Doubtful.

The fact is, 4.9 percent is a level of defense spending just enough to keep the Pentagon afloat as it continues to wage war and, to the most minimal degree, begin to deal with a force structure composed of aging ships, planes, tankers, and helicopters. All of which comes after the Obama administration has already cut more than $300 billion in planned procurement expenditures by the Bush Pentagon. And, indeed, if one strips away the cost related to the drawdown in Iraq and the conflict in Afghanistan, there is hardly any difference in the core defense budget between the Bush and Obama administrations when it comes to percent of GDP.

If the signatories to the Americans for Tax Reform letter had their way, and defense spending was sliced back to 3.9 percent of GDP, one of two things would surely happen: for lack of funds, either we would be forced to leave Afghanistan or we would be required to accept a military reduced considerably in size and future capabilities. Both would be a roll of the dice when it comes to the country’s security. Is that what Grover and company really want?

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.


The Coming Year in Defense

by CDS Editors

CDS director Tom Donnelly discusses the importance of shielding America’s armed forces from looming budget cuts and outlines the U.S. military’s role in preserving international stability and prosperity.


Debating New START

by CDS Editors

On Monday, CDS director Tom Donnelly joined Michael O’Hanlon, Steven Pifer, and Keith Payne on a public panel at the Brookings Institution to discuss New START. Watch the event below.


Beware a Hollow Air Force

by CDS Editors

The Air Force stands to be gravely impacted by looming defense budget cuts and program cancellations, warns Michael Auslin.

(flickr/Staff Sgt. Eric Harris, U.S. Air Force)

With our colleagues from the Heritage Foundation and the Foreign Policy Initiative, the Center for Defense Studies has released a joint Defending Defense Project statement in response to the various deficit reduction proposals presented in recent weeks. The full text of the statement is below; download the PDF here.

America’s military has come under severe strain in the last decade, fighting two wars, preparing for the many potential challenges of the future, and contending with a growing number of aging, worn-out weapons systems. Yet as the debate in Washington about reducing America’s deficit gathers steam, there are increasing calls to make deep cuts in the defense budget.  The fiscal effects of such reductions are minimal—saving perhaps $100 billion over many years against projected annual deficits of more than $1.4 trillion—but the impact on the U.S. military is major.  Greater still would be the effects of diminished American power in an increasingly “multipolar” world.

The proposed defense budget cuts, spending freezes, and program cancellations put forward recently in a series of high-profile studies and reports from the chairmen of President Obama’s deficit commission, as well as the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force, do not appear to be grounded in any realistic assessment of our military’s current capabilities and the challenges we are likely to face in the years ahead.  As Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the proposals drafted by deficit commission co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, “in terms of the specifics they came up with, that’s essentially math, not strategy.”

Gates’ criticisms apply equally to the efforts overseen by former Sen. Pete Domenici and former Congressional Budget office director Alice Rivlin.  Their task force calls for a freeze on defense spending and Pentagon cuts that would take the military’s budget down to 2000 levels; in short, they want to return to a peacetime budget in the midst of two protracted wars.  The White House deficit commission co-chair’s recommendations were similarly bipartisan but more specific, identifying  a series of specific weapons programs which would together decimate the war fighting capacity of America’s armed services, particularly the Marine Corps.

Economically, there is no reason to make defense the bill-payer for the country’s domestic excesses: Pentagon spending is a drop in the bucket of the government’s $13.3 trillion debt. As Secretary Gates pointed out recently, “If you cut the defense budget by 10 percent, which would be catastrophic in terms of force structure, that’s $55 billion on a $1.4 trillion deficit.”  Defense, he rightly concluded, is “not the problem” driving the country’s deficit.  Indeed, as former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Martin Feldstein has noted, Simpson and Bowles “overlooked the easiest route to reducing the deficits over the next decade: scaling back the costly budget that President Obama presented earlier this year. Much of the projected doubling of the national debt between 2010 and 2020 reflects the spending and tax proposals in that budget.”

There is a common misconception that the military has enjoyed ballooning budgets since the beginning of the decade. In reality, the baseline defense budget (not including the costs of the wars) grew from only 3 to 3.5 percent of GDP from the end of the Clinton administration to the time George W. Bush left office, delaying modernization and procurement efforts across all the armed services.  ‘Going to war with the army you have,’ to paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has exacerbated this problem, gobbling up the remaining service life of older systems; nine-plus years of war have only increased this “modernization deficit.”  Further reductions, on top of the more than $300 billion Secretary Gates has already cut in proposed procurement of new weapon systems, will dangerously erode the technological edge that America’s armed forces depend upon, and deserve.

The larger effects of strategy-by-mathematics are plain; indeed, the real virtue of the Simpson–Bowles proposal is that it is frank in its desire to “reexamine America’s 21st century role.”  Yet international politics is rarely a matter of arithmetic and American strength has a massive multiplying effect on economic growth and the growth of human freedom.  We can easily calculate the costs of our military power; it’s harder to measure so precisely the costs that surely would come from its absence.

Americans are rightly concerned about the bloated size of the Federal budget, but they also realize that of the current activities carried out by the Federal government on a daily basis, perhaps none is more important than its constitutional role in providing for the common defense.  If enacted, the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin recommendations would seriously undermine America’s ability to meet the emerging security challenges of the twenty first century.


The Real Problem with START

by Tom Donnelly

The hubbub over whether the lame duck edition of the 111th Congress should ratify the Obama administration’s “New START” treaty diverts attention from the agreement’s most profound problem: it does not prepare the United States for the new, and extremely volatile, nuclear realities just around the corner.  The problem can’t be fixed by waiting for the 112th Congress, either.

The main objections raised by Senator Jon Kyl, courageously playing Horatio at the bridge in the face of a tidal wave of Establishment pressure to “just do it” on the treaty, are both quite cogent. He doubts the sincerity or the sufficiency of the White House’s offers to modernize the U.S. deterrent arsenal or to invest in the missile defense systems needed to protect the United States, its armed forces abroad, or its allies.  Kyl months ago made plain his willingness to support the treaty if his worries were taken seriously, but the administration played stall-ball and low-ball. Kyl rightly has concluded that he can get a better offer in a new Congress.

Kyl is on the right track, but he has yet to ask the larger, more important question: what are the requirements for U.S. offensive nuclear forces in the emerging, “multipolar” nuclear world?  This world is about as different from the old Cold War “balance of terror” as one can imagine, in at least three ways. The most obvious is that it will be marked by a rising number of otherwise weak states with modestly-sized nuclear forces: think North Korea and Iran.  These are the kinds of “regional rogues” that the United States has, since Operation Desert Storm, dealt with at its leisure through the use of relatively small but devastatingly effective applications of conventional military power.  These regimes watched successive American president’s play with Saddam Hussein¹s ambitions like a cat toying with a caught mouse.  They’ve learned the obvious lesson: to deter America, get a nuke.  This thought has also occurred to more and more petty dictators, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.  The second-order effect will be still more proliferation, this time amongst U.S. allies and partners, beginning with those in the Middle East.

The second concern arises from the first. The combination of weak, failing, unstable governments and a global proliferation market—where laws of supply and demand are at very free-play—increases the odds that, in some not-so-distant future, that terrorist groups or other “non-state actors” might come into possession of nuclear materials if not weapons.  The thought of terrorists with their hands on the most terrible means of power is no longer an unthinkable prospect.  A different world indeed.

The third aspect of our nuclear future is the least considered: how will such weapons shape the great-power competitions of the 21st century?  This, too, is likely to be a multi-sided game, in contrast to the bipolar nuclear disorders of the Cold War.  At the minimum, there will be an important nuclear balance between India and China—something that will be of considerable interest to the United States but over which we will have lesser influence.  Even in the bloodless analysis of nuclear political science, it’s inevitable that this emerging multipolarity will be more complex, and probably less stable.

What will be the value of American nuclear forces in such an environment?  In truth, no one knows—but that’s exactly the point.  The New START agreement confidently locks the United States to a set of constraining commitments without any serious consideration of what this new nuclear world will require.  But if there is one certainty, it is that the global demand for American security guarantees will rise; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was prescient in talking about extending a deterrent umbrella over the Gulf States worried about Iran’s nukes.  If there is no appropriate “nuclear backstop” to that guarantee, how credible a deterrent will it appear to be, particularly to the skittish and brittle Arab regimes of the region?

Sen. Kyl and the new conservatives in Congress should not be in a rush next year, either, to ratify the New START treaty. In addition to holding the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on missile defense and modernization of the existing nuclear infrastructure, they should take the opportunity to provoke a wider discussion and debate about the role of nuclear weapons in the all-too-foreseeable future.  New START is not so much a bad deal—though it is that—as it is an irrelevant deal.  And that is far more dangerous.

(DOD Photo, U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

Will China Prevent a Korean War No One Wants?

by Michael Mazza

North Korea fired artillery rounds into South Korea this morning (2:30 p.m. local time), killing two marines and wounding 19 other people, including three civilians. This attack has come on the heels of the revelation of a new, modern North Korean uranium enrichment facility and, of course, follows the torpedoing earlier this year of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel.

As after the Cheonan sinking, South Korean forces responded with cool heads. Though they returned fire, as per their rules of engagement, they took no action to escalate the violence. It was the South Koreans that called for a cease-fire at about 4:00 p.m.

There is now much speculation regarding the North’s motives. Does the attack have something to do with the ongoing leadership transition? Was it a response to South Korean military exercises? Is Kim Jong-Il trying to coax (i.e., coerce) the United States and South Korea back to the six-party talks? It’s difficult to say.

It would certainly be useful to understand Kim’s intentions but, in truth, it doesn’t really matter. What can be said with a high degree of certainty is that Pyongyang will carry out similar provocations in the future and that they will do so regardless of the policies that the United States and South Korea adopt (unless they accede, I suppose, to what amounts to North Korean blackmail). This is a frightening truth, as nobody (especially the North) should assume that cooler heads will always prevail in South Korea. Whether it be President Lee Myung-bak, his successor, or the South Korean population, someone will eventually say, “Enough is enough.” Sooner or later, South Korea will risk a larger war in the hopes of stopping for good the North’s unprovoked attacks.

In order to avoid this eventuality, China will have to start exercising the leverage it has over the Kim regime. And, as I’ve argued previously, China has plenty of leverage. Yet Beijing seems unconcerned with the latest provocation. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei explained that “we hope the relevant parties will do more to contribute to the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.” Specifically in regards to today’s artillery fire, Hong noted that “the situation needs to be verified.”

That is a muted response to what was the first attack of its kind on South Korean soil since the Korean War. Twice this year, North Korea has violated the terms of the 1953 armistice agreement with the South, carrying out what can only be described as acts of war. If China doesn’t use its influence to put a stop to this behavior peacefully, South Korea may have to do so forcefully. We will then be faced with a war on the peninsula that nobody wanted and that nobody will soon forget.

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog.

(flickr/DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Cynthia Griggs, U.S. Navy)