Five Reasons the Defense Budget Won't Change

Obama's Defense Strategic Guidance is not really new. It rehashes long-standing American policies.

President Obama recently released what he calls “new strategic guidance” intended to be a blueprint for sizing and shaping the future military. That, in turn, is supposed to guide Pentagon officials as they make a series of difficult choices for reducing the defense budget. But there’s really little new in the slim eight-page document.

At its core, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” is a rehash of America’s long-standing policies of worldwide power projection and global intervention. There is little in the missive that presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton or George W. Bush would not have endorsed.

Here are five reasons why:

1. The administration defines the national interest too expansively.

The administration’s business-as-usual thinking becomes immediately apparent in the president’s assertion that America’s priority is “the security of our Nation, allies, and partners.”

Despite the fact that the United States has not been confronted by a hegemonic military superpower seeking world domination since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, U.S. policy makers still seem intent on using America’s power and purse to protect the world.

The supposedly new strategic guidance lists ten primary missions for the U.S. military: counter terrorism and irregular warfare; deter and defeat aggression; project power; counter weapons of mass destruction; operate effectively in space and cyberspace; maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent; defend the U.S. homeland and provide support to civil authorities; provide a “stabilizing presence” overseas; conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations; and, last but not least, conduct humanitarian, disaster relief and other operations.

At most, just two of these missions—“maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent” and “defend the homeland and provide support to civil authorities”—are about defending America. The rest are about defending others around the world.

2. It is too vague about what kinds of aggression require a response.

Particularly troubling is the open-ended mission to “deter and defeat aggression,” whereby U.S. forces are supposed to “be capable of deterring and defeating any potential adversary.” The guidance does not say “aggression against the United States.” Instead, it simply makes the argument that the United States, as “a nation with important interests in multiple regions,” must be able to deter and defeat aggression practically everywhere—even if such aggression does not directly threaten the American people or U.S. national security.

3. The terrorism threat is exaggerated.

Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration fails to recognize that terrorism is not an “existential” threat—that is, a threat to our national existence. To be sure, terrorism is a savage and indiscriminate form of warfare and can inflict great harm. But it does not threaten our country’s existence, as the former Soviet Union’s nuclear-weapons arsenal did. Indeed, only Russia today possesses the kind and quantity of weapons that could inflict a mortal wound on the United States.

4. The same missions will mean the same costs.

The ultimate folly is believing that the new strategic guidance will somehow lead to reduced defense spending.

President Obama sounds almost Rumsfeldian arguing for “military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible, and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.” But military capacity is a direct function of mission. So if the mission is to do virtually everything everywhere—essentially the same as it’s been for decades now—it’s unlikely that the mission can be met with less capacity.

5. We won’t significantly shrink the defense establishment.

If we aren’t going to reduce military capacity, it’s hard to see how we will end up spending less. Sure, we may shrink active-duty troop strength and slow the development and procurement of new weapons. But even after shrinking the army from its recent peak of 570,000 to a planned 490,000 troops five years from now, and the Marine Corps from 202,000 to 182,000 troops, the numbers will still be greater than they were on 9/11.

President Obama admits as much. “Over the next ten years,” he acknowledged, “the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership.”

This is the status quo masquerading as change.

Charles V. Peña is a DC-based senior fellow with the Independent Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books, 2006).