Ditch the Defense-Cuts Panic

Image: M1129 Mortar Carrier firing. U.S. Army photo, public domain.

Every attempt to bring down military budgets is met with dire warnings, not serious analysis.

If there is one thing that Democrats and Republicans in Congress can agree upon, it is the supposed danger that cuts to military spending will have on American security and prosperity. Despite the fact that the United States spends four times more any other country on defense, any attempt to decrease the military budget invariably sparks bitter, hypocritical and counterproductive political battles marked by apocalyptic warnings and an “anywhere but here” mentality.

Nevertheless, there is often little analytic weight behind the dire tone of such predictions. The tenor of debates over military readiness is invariably immature and lacks facts. Take, for instance, two recent well-publicized arguments over military cuts: the A-10 Warthog and the supposed “carrier gap.” While retiring the A-10 Warthog would eliminate the Air Force’s purest close air support platform, there are a number of platforms, including drones and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter among others, which could fulfill this role. Even if these replacements would be slightly less effective than the A-10 at providing close air support, this decrease would not foundationally comprise operational effectiveness. Similarly, despite the uproar over the perceived “carrier gap” brought about by delays in the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford, there has yet to be a clear linkage between the supposed gap and the inability of the U.S. Navy to fulfill operational requirements.

Proposed cuts to the U.S. Army in terms of delayed modernization initiatives and imminent personnel reductions appear poised to become the latest crisis de jour for military leaders and their congressional allies. Still, how detrimental would these cuts actually be to operational readiness? While a recently released report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) would appear on its face to lend credence to concerns over decreasing the strength of the Army, a close reading reveals that the threat posed by such cuts is greatly overstated. In assessing where to locate potential cuts, for instance, the Army has prioritized the retention of combat units over support units since the former are costlier and take longer to stand up than the latter. This decision leaves the majority of American combat power intact, with slightly disproportionate cuts occurring in supporting units.

While the GAO did note that the Army did not comprehensively assess the mission risk of decreased levels of support forces, there is little reason to believe that the results of this assessment would indicate a fatal compromise of U.S. military effectiveness. Indeed, the Army has already hedged against mission risk by retaining a higher number of Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) than analysis indicated would be sufficient to fulfill mission requirements. Furthermore, the Army was able to reshape the organizational structure of BCTs and add an additional maneuver battalion to each one, meaning there was virtually no loss in operational flexibility despite a decrease in absolute numbers.

If the results of internal Army analyses regarding proposed cuts did not reveal major shortfalls in fulfilling operational requirements, then where does the fear-based rhetoric surround such cuts come from? Unfortunately there are bureaucratic incentives for both Army leaders and their allies in Congress to misrepresent the threat that personnel cuts pose, which muddle what should be a technical, measured debate over policy alternatives. The notion that military leaders are generally risk averse and pessimistic is a well-known trope in political science. This trait is further amplified by the de facto zero-sum nature of resource competition inside of the Department of Defense. While spending levels for the individual services are in theory linked to their unique operational needs and the capabilities fielded to fulfill them, in practice services jealously protect their resource allocations against perceived predation from other branches of the Department.