No Revolution at the Pentagon

Four reasons why defense-budget cuts may not be as dramatic as expected.

Later this month, the Obama administration will present the details of its FY2013 defense budget to Congress, the broad outlines of which the president unveiled during a January speech at the Pentagon. The plan calls for cutting $487 billion over the next ten years. Republicans criticized it as a sign that the Democrats are again (or still) weak on defense; Democrats and several independent experts hailed it as prudent and suitable for an age of tight budgets. Both sides may well be wrong, because they assume that the strategy will be implemented. But Congress may alter the trajectory of this major defense policy, as it has with most others. Here are four areas to watch as the debate moves to Capitol Hill:

1. The defense budget could re-increase.

Already there is wide consensus that Congress must find a way to circumvent its commitment and majority vote to cut $600 billion over ten years, after the automatic cuts triggered by the failure of the deficit-reduction supercommittee. Moreover, though a $487 billion cut is a rather small one—it amounts to about $49 billion a year and would bring the DOD budget to a level that exceeds the 2007 level, a banner year—there are quite a few in Congress who are already pushing for a larger budget. And if the GOP captures the White House, it is very likely to re-increase the DOD budget. The same is likely to take place following any new confrontation—say, with Iran—as Congress in the past often added to the defense budget through supplemental appropriations

2. The military-industrial complex will respond.

The concept of a “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) has been championed by Andrew W. Marshall, the influential head of DOD’s Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s internal think tank. It holds that as the nature of warfare changes, conventional military forces like big armies and aircraft carriers will become inefficient and unnecessary. Instead, funding and manpower should be refocused to concentrate on precision weaponry and new technologies that can be employed rapidly and often involve unmanned strikes. Former secretaryof defense Donald Rumsfeld is reported to have been influenced by this idea and sought to restructure DOD accordingly. He ran into intense resistance from the Pentagon and its allies on the Hill, the defense industry and the distracting side effects of 9/11. Obama’s budget indirectly returns to this RMA idea by focusing on cyber warfare and technological developments and delaying the purchase of high-cost items such as the F-35 fighter jet.

The defense industry has two major reasons to favor the old regime: There is much more money to be made from producing big platforms like ships, nuclear submarines and fleets of airplanes, rather than drones and antiship missiles. And because of the size of the big-ticket items, there are usually only one or two potential manufacturers, limiting competition and allowing the manufacturers to run up the costs and profits. Congress can direct which corporations get the contracts, including plants in favored jurisdictions, because the sums are large enough to constitute line items in the budget. One must expect more big platforms than the Pentagon needs. Saving $4 billion by mothballing one of the eleven aircraft carriers is already off the table.

3. Limited funds might spell the end of nation building.

Nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan was very expensive, and many of the funds were lost due to corruption and waste. The governments of both nations are a very long way from being stable or democratic—and their alliance with the West remains untested. The Obama strategy does not call for any future nation building to draw on large conventional forces; in effect, it seeks to rely on offshore balancing of the kind that worked well in Kosovo and Libya and is now attempted in Yemen. Some in the Pentagon will keep fighting for a counterinsurgency approach, which includes a strong element of nation building rather than counterterrorism, but given the budgetary pressures this plank is most likely to survive—and for good reasons.

4. Special Forces should not suffer cuts.

The Obama defense strategy calls for cutting the army to 490,000 soldiers but not for reducing the ranks of special forces. I must declare my partiality as someone who served in the special forces, although in my day they were called cmmandos. And yet my bias is confirmed by the fact that 65 percent of the al-Qaeda leaders killed in Afghanistan were sent on their last journey by special forces. Some others were killed by drones, but only a few by the much larger conventional forces. Large-scale forces are particularly ill suited for fighting insurgents and terrorists, who dress up like civilians and mix with the civilian population. Special forces can fight back, following similar rules of engagement. But historically the Pentagon has felt uncomfortable with unorthodox ways of fighting and sought to curb the role of the special forces. It would be surprising if this time these elite units are given the volume of missions they can actually handle.

The next months will tell if the Obama defense strategy is merely the opening gambit of a negotiation process in which he will yield all too fast—like many of his other policy initiatives—or if it will be a foundation for leaner, more agile U.S. forces. Meanwhile, do not rush to short sell stocks of arms manufacturers, especially those that produce big platforms. And do not lose sleep worrying that the Department of Defense will have to survive on a lean diet. Fewer cuts and less restructuring is coming than we have been told.

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