Why Cutting the Defense Budget is a Good Idea

A huge bomb was dropped on the national security community yesterday when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the soon-to-be-released 2015 budget for the Department of Defense would feature massive cuts in personnel levels, material acquisition, and active duty pay and benefits.  The new proposal seeks to cut the budget by $487 billion over the next ten years and decrease the number of troops in the Army to roughly 450,000 among other decreases.  Among the people crying loudly that this will serve to make the United States much weaker on the global stage are Senators John McCain, National Review editor Rich Lowery, and numerous people on the Right.

Without getting into the line-by-line items of things to be cut–or increased if Special Operations Forces are considered–the strategy behind this realignment of the military is very interesting and a much needed change of pace in grand strategy thinking.  Lowery sniped that “[i]t is not quite true that the cuts are undertaken without any strategic thought. The Obama administration’s strategic thought is . . . that we need no strategic thought.”  However, this is simply not the case at all.  The aim of this new military stance is to create a more flexible, quick response force.

Bridget Johnson, over at PJ Media, quotes Secretary Hagel as saying ““Our force structure and modernization recommendations are rooted in three realities: first, after Iraq and Afghanistan, we are no longer sizing the military to conduct long and large stability operations; second, we must maintain our technological edge over potential adversaries; and, third, the military must be ready and capable to respond quickly to all contingencies and decisively defeat any opponent should deterrence fail.”  This was stated during the press conference at the Pentagon.  The three realities need serious consideration.

First, stating that the military will no longer be structured to “conduct long and large stability operations” means that the use of the military to engage a conventional force, hold territory, and provide security while rebuilding that territory is primarily at an end.  This is the thinking of the grand old days of World War Two, when the US military conquered nation states who were the aggressors and rebuilt them in the image of the US.  The underlying characteristic for this type of strategy is that nation states with large conventional forces will become aggressors in the same regard that Germany and Japan did in the 1930s and 1940s.  Or that the occupying forces will be staring down another nation state’s large conventional forces in the event that they attempt to become aggressors themselves (the defining characteristic of the Cold War).  The current global atmosphere has the US in only one position that is reminiscent to the past military doctrines of World War Two and the Cold War and that is North Korea.

The security concerns for the US going forward into the 21st century stems from nation states that possess nuclear weapons (Iran, China, Pakistan, and Russia) and non-state actors that operate in a much murkier environment (al Qa’ida, drug cartels, and weapons proliferating).  The doctrine espoused by Hagel–and to be sure, President Barack Obama is on board with this too–is one that moves the military toward combating these very real threats, while maintaining a conventional military that can be put in place to meet any conventional challenge.  Since the 1991 Gulf War, the United States has been involved with more military operations that involve Special Operations Forces than have involved large, conventional forces.  This doctrine was also the doctrine that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attempted to implement during his tenure at the Pentagon, one of a smaller footprint with more flexibility.

Second, the maintaining of technological superiority militarily speaks to the neo-isolationist definition of Professor Barry Posen.  According to his definition, neo-isolationism presents a small, domestically garrisoned ground force, a technologically advanced nuclear force, and a large air force and navy for control of the air and sea.  If it is supposed that another nation state will not be attempting to invade another state, or the US, then it is reasonable to have a smaller conventional force with a large nuclear arsenal as a deterrent.  This, along with the advanced weapons systems maintained in the new budget for the Air Force and Navy, and a serious development of an anti-ballistic missile system (I know the Democrats are not interested in a missile defense system) will serve to keep a strong presence globally.

Lastly, the Hagel doctrine will lean heavily on Special Operations Forces because of their ability to move quickly and be predominantly self sustaining while on mission.  A great example of how this can be done effectively is the first year of the Afghanistan operation.  This operation was conducted by US Special Operations Forces (both through military units and the CIA) and indigenous units that were willing to work with the US in ousting the Taliban.  In terms of the amount of time it took to take control of Kabul versus the amount of time it took to take control of Baghdad in 2003, the comparisons are relatively equal.  With non-state actors being the primary security threat, it is incumbent upon military strategists to realize that these actors will operate in the shadows and, therefore, so should the United States.

Three-star General H.R. McMasters, deputy commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, looks at the Hagel doctrine as “wishful thinking.”  Much of the problem according to McMasters is the sense that the US is “‘opting out’ of certain kinds of conflicts.”  This sentiment is borne out of the notion that change is dangerous.  The world has and is constantly changing, so too should the military doctrine of the United States.  Having doctrines that are in some instances 70 years old be the centerpiece of military strategy puts the US on more dangerous ground than what many of Hagel’s detractors are accusing him of doing.  Sometimes smaller is better.