How the U.S. Military Can Save $1 Trillion

The Pentagon, looking northeast with the Potomac River and Washington Monument in the distance. Wikimedia Commons/Department of Defense

Cut the U.S. military's size, but retain its technical edge.

The United States could reduce Pentagon spending by over a trillion dollars in the next decade—spending $5.2 trillion rather than the currently planned $6.3 trillion— by adopting strategy of military restraint. That’s the bottom line of a study I produced along with several colleagues as part of “Developing Alternative Defense Strategies 2016,” an exercise organized by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, where groups from five think tanks used CSBA’s “Strategic Choices” software to reimagine the U.S. military budget.

The others all increased military spending. The teams from the Center for New American Security and the Center for Strategic and International Studies added a few percent—tens of billions a year for the decade. CSBA’s team added about ten percent, and the American Enterprise Institute’s twenty.

Why was the Cato team such an outlier? Unlike the others, we reject the United States’ current grand strategy of primacy, or liberal hegemony. The others differ on spending details but agree that U.S. security requires global stability maintained everywhere by U.S. military activism, meaning alliances backed by garrisons and threats, naval patrols, and regular military interventions in unruly places.

Our proposal, by contrast, follows from the grand strategy of restraint. That starts with restraining ourselves from the temptations that great power affords— making war less often and more deliberatively, deflating our definition of security so it is distinguishable from global dominance and ceasing to insist that we alone can boss humanity.

Restraint differs from primacy on four key points. First, rather than seeing U.S. security as precarious, restraint says that U.S. geography, wealth, and technological prowess go far to secure the United States from attack. Second, restraint sees military force as a blunt tool good for destroying and deterring enemy forces, not a fine instrument that reorganizes other nations. Hence restraint eschews wars meant to stabilize fractured states or liberalize oppressive ones. Third, restraint is skeptical about permanent alliances. U.S. alliances were vital to matching the power of threatening hegemons, like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but they should generally end as enemies fade and allies become capable of self-defense. U.S. protection has becomes a subsidy for the rich. It can encourage allied recklessness that can embroil U.S. forces in needless war. Fourth, global trade is robust and not dependent on the protection of nearby U.S. military garrisons and naval patrols. U.S. forces should protect trade routes during conflicts, but almost nothing threatens peacetime trade. If disruptions do occur, new suppliers and routes typically become available, thanks to trade globalization.

A U.S. military molded by those insights would need far less force structure, personnel, operational funding, administrative support and real estate. But our cuts were not indiscriminate. We tried to shift U.S. military spending to take advantage of the nation’s geopolitical advantages. Distance from trouble and technological prowess means we can afford to wait and let others man their own front lines. When U.S. forces go to war, they should attack from the continental United States or oceans and avoid lingering in occupation.

Those insights recommend a sea-based defense, so we shrunk the Navy less than other services. Nonetheless, we cut about a quarter of its ships and manpower. That’s possible because under restraint, the Navy would operate as a surge force that deploys to attack shorelines and to open sea-lanes when necessary rather than conducting constant “presence” patrols. We retired the four oldest aircraft carriers over the ten-year period and cut twelve amphibious ships from the fleet. We cut destroyers, cruisers and other ships to reflect the reduction in carrier strike groups and attack submarines somewhat less due to their evasiveness and usefulness for a variety of missions.