Is America Still a Military Superpower?

As other nations gain some important military advantages, Washington must deal with sequestration.

Such comments are alarming—but we should not be surprised. Others have been making such remarks for a few years now. Congressman J. Randy Forbes explained to me back in December 2013 that “sequestration poses the most serious threat to our military’s readiness since the days of the ‘hollow force’ after the Vietnam War.” Forbes went on to add that “If sequestration is allowed to continue, nearly every aspect of our larger national defense strategy will be detrimentally impacted, including the ‘rebalance’ to the Asia Pacific.”

Relative Military Decline and the China Factor:

While the question of sequestration is an important one, something to consider is what I would argue is what would have naturally occurred anyway--the relative decline of U.S. military dominance. As many others have noted, as advanced military hardware like cruise missiles, various types of “smart munitions”, relatively cheap ultra quiet submarines, drones and cyber weapons slowly diffuse around the world, Washington’s advantages against possible state and non-state competitors will erode to a certain degree. What makes matters worse is sequester simply speeds up the process.

A great example that illustrates the above is the budding U.S.-Sino security competition in the Pacific Ocean. As Elbridge Colby, the Robert M. Gates fellow at CNAS, points out quite smartly:

The Chinese government announced on (last)Wednesday that it would increase military spending by about 10% this year. At first glance, this may not seem particularly remarkable. China’s spending on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has grown by almost 10% annually for the last decade and grew by comparable amounts in the preceding one. Of course, this in and of itself is significant and, for Americans and their allies, sobering. China has already put together a military that can begin to contest American military predominance in the Western Pacific.

...Thus, whatever the inherent justifiability of China’s intentions, the brass tacks reality appears to be that Beijing will continue to move towards fielding a military increasingly capable of contesting America’s primacy in the Asia-Pacific. This is an uncomfortable and unpleasant truth for the United States and its allies and partners, which had become accustomed to an enduring American hegemony in maritime Asia. But it is a reality nonetheless...

The example above demonstrates a clear problem: as the United States faces the relative decline of its military thanks to the natural diffusion of advanced military technology, nations like China are spending more on their military capabilities— even at a time when its economy is starting to have some difficulties achieving the mass growth rates of years past. As China’s military is not yet a global force, it has the luxury of focusing its defense expenditures in developing its anti-access/area-denial capabilities, which aim directly at perceived U.S. weaknesses. Sequestration only compounds the challenge.

Where to Go From Here:

The good news is that many in Congress and in some respects the administration--in submitting a budget that busts the defense caps--see the problem and are working to try and find a solution. In what might be considered the best explanation of the difficulties America faces due to sequestration, John McCain and Mac Thornberry define the challenge before us in a recent joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal--while also putting to bed the notions of how some justify it:

Some advocates of the BCA are willing to overlook its damage to national security because, they claim, at least it cuts the debt. But it doesn’t even do that in a meaningful way.

Military spending is not to blame for out-of-control deficits and debt—it is now 16% of federal spending, the lowest share since before World War II. By 2020, it will be 13%. Interest on the debt soon will consume a larger portion of the federal budget than will military spending. Yet national defense took 50% of the cuts under the Budget Control Act and sequestration. The true drivers of the nation’s long-term debt—entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare—took none.

...Heaping nearly $1 trillion in cuts on the U.S. military while ignoring entitlements is not conservative fiscal policy and will not solve the problems of deficits and debt.