U.S. Defense Policy: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

President Obama’s defense plan has positive aspects but is not part of a coherent strategic vision for the nation. With this failing, Obama, as commander-in-chief, is not unique. Ever since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States has lacked a vision of what it wanted to do in the world and how its military should carry out part of that plan. In the hysteria that followed the 9/11 attacks, the counterterrorism mission received all the publicity but not all the money. The tragic terrorist strikes were used to justify a 50 percent increase in the defense budget, when fighting rag tag groups of terrorism was, and is, fairly cheap; the extra cash was used to satisfy a wish list by the military services that had little to do with fighting al-Qaeda. Of course, the justifiable counterterrorism mission then morphed into unnecessary and disastrous nation-building occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan against guerrilla fighters – that is, long counterinsurgency wars that actually increased blowback terrorism.

To Obama’s credit, his current defense budget reduces a US Army bloated to fight such superfluous long land wars. Personnel costs – such as pay, pensions, health care, and housing and food subsidies – are breaking the defense budget and will be reduced by cutting the Army from 490,000 soldiers (570,000 personnel was the post-9/11 peak) to 440,000 to 450,000 and making lesser cuts to the Marines (200,000 to 192,000), the Army National Guard (355,000 to 335,000), and the Army Reserve (205,000 to 195,000). If Congress approves such personnel cuts, the Army will be smaller than it was before World War II in 1940.

However, that fact is misleading, because with modern technology and weapons, even the smaller US Army will be vastly more powerful than that of 1940 and still, by far, dominant in the world. As the initial US invasion of Iraq demonstrated (before the occupation and counterinsurgency war started), a relatively small, high technology American ground force, supporting air power, could dispatch the conventional army of a land power in short order. Obama’s defense budget wisely continues the conventional dominance of the US Army and Marines while making the active forces too small to conduct protracted foreign occupations and counterinsurgency wars. Although politicians have ignored the US military’s past attempts to hem in their propensity to involve the nation in faraway brushfire quagmires, cuts active ground forces will provide a useful constraint and be far less costly to keep. In fact, with the increased potency of piloted and unpiloted air power, cuts in active Army and Marine personnel could go even farther – just so long as the United States retains the capability to fight one medium regional war. In times of austerity, past force levels required to fight two medium wars nearly simultaneously, or more recently to win one war and fight a holding action in another theater, can no longer be sustained and never have been really needed to ensure US security.

Also, although the United States, being oceans away from the world’s conflict zones, should be primarily an air and sea power, the Air Force and Navy could also be cut back. Yet Obama’s 2015 defense budget eliminates only U-2 spy planes and Air Force A-10 ground support aircraft and lays up 6 Navy cruisers until funds can be found to modernize them. Once again, the Navy keeps 11 big deck aircraft carriers, which drive most other ship requirements to accompany them and are ridiculous when no other navy in the world has even a shadow of a similar competing fleet. The Navy continues a robust and expensive shipbuilding program, building two destroyers and two submarines per year, when it already has crushing dominance on the world’s oceans. More important, with a huge budget deficit and massive national debt, the United States needs to cut back on the number of warships deployed around the world for non-defense purposes – that is, for expensive gunboat diplomacy.

The United States no longer needs to police the world on the seas and should keep only enough land forces to fight one medium regional war. Thus, the active personnel of all services could be cut even more, channeling part of the significant savings into better training for the emergency-ready National Guard and Reserve forces and reducing the budget deficit with the rest. The United States, which would remain the supreme military power on earth even with such cuts, should become less of a globe trotting interventionist superpower and more of a "balancer-of-last-resort" for the rare instance that the balance of power gets out of kilter in a region of high GDP and technology – Europe or East Asia. In short, the United States should worry about only big security threats, design its forces against that standard, and quit worrying about the small stuff.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.