Chuck Hagel's Budget: Sounding Retreat

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s Defense Department budget tells us all what we knew – America’s reduced role on the world geopolitical stage extends far beyond the mere withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan; it includes a conscious plan to reduce our capabilities to project force around the world. It is a plan driven both by the anti-imperialism of President Obama and by the budgetary zeal of Republicans in Congress. And military resources stand to become less as other priorities dominate future federal budgets.

First, some thoughts on Secretary Hegel’s budget proposal.

– At $496 billion, it reflects a $30 billion reduction from the FY2014 level. It reduces the active duty military by 13% and reserves by 5%, reducing the level of Army troops from 520,000 to some 450,000 as some 25,000 to 35,000 American military are withdrawn from Afghanistan.

– It reflects many difficult decisions which will be argued out in Congress: the elimination of the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog close air support program; a major downsizing of the Navy’s fleet of ships for shallow water combat; another round of Base Reduction and Closure cuts; the (long overdue) elimination of U-2 reconnaisance aircraft in favor of drones and satellites; reductions in the state National Guard forces.

– In dollar terms the budget is decreasing from some $700 billion just four years ago, the great majority being a drop of $150 billion in Iraq/Afghanistan costs.  Military spending as a per cent of GDP declined from about 7% in the 1980’s to under 4% in 2000, then increased to about 6% after 9/11 and is now headed back toward the 4% level.

– In global terms, US military spending is about 35% of the world’s total, but its relative magnitude is declining as China (and to a lesser estent Russia) expands, exceeding the combined total of Germany, Britain, and France in 2015.

– Longer term, as Obamacare and Social Security costs grow faster than inflation, the financial squeeze will only get worse – particularly as interest rates on the $17 trillion debt return to a more normal 3 to 5 %.

The striking domestic political moment was the 2012 vote for “sequestraton” budget cuts for 2013-2021 which were split evenly between defense and non-defense discretionary spending. To the surprise of liberals who had expected Republicans to cave in, the Tea Party drive for fiscal restraint prevailed despite the impact on the defense establishment. Further, the Murray budget agreement brokered in December retained most of the defense sequestration cuts and set a target in line with Secretary Hagel’s $496 billion.  There was a squeal about cuts to veteran pensions, but the big conservative criticism was that budgets – including the military – were not cut enough.

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Gates’ assessment that President Obama had never believed in the mission in Afghanistan, trusted our military leaders, or respected Harmid Karzai as an ally while he sent thousands of soldiers to be killed reflects what was essentially a domestic political calculation. Couple that with the indifferent attitude toward comrades under attack expressed at Benghazi, cheating on proficiency exams by Air Force nuclear missile crews, and refusal to institute an effective system for dealing with thousands of sexual assaults annually, recruitment and morale are seriously at risk.

At least for the duration of the Obama presidency it seems inevitable that we will rely on oratory as the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians continue on their expansionist paths and the jihadists gain force in Syria, Yemen, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan.


This week’s short video is of the Crimean Peninsula, a portion of Ukraine with a high Russian population and home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Following Russia’s 2008 invasian of the nearby country of Georgia, it would not be surprising if this strategic piece of Ukraine were re-taken by Putin’s Russia.