Of all of this year’s seismic shifts in the deficit and debt debate, putting U.S. defense budgets on the table is perhaps the most significant.
President Obama’s deficit commission, reinforced by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Rivlin-Domenici panel, has added military spending to the conversation on spending cuts. And newly-ascendant Republicans have affirmed that fiscal discipline must extend to the defense budget.
The U.S. Department of Defense, however, has not yet acknowledged this shift. On the contrary, Defense Secretary Robert Gates blasted the deficit commission’s report as “math, not strategy.”
More disciplined budgeting will first require the United States to acknowledge that we Americans are more secure today than at any point since 1945.
Al Qaeda poses a challenge that is far more sensational than it is existential, while both a strategic nuclear exchange and major land combat are unlikely. Moreover, the U.S. dominance in virtually every domain of warfare is extraordinary. Indeed, the Pentagon spends more on just research today than any other country spends on its entire armed force.
Even with level or declining future budgets — now roughly $700 billion, the highest since 1947 — the U.S. military would be the only one in the world able to patrol the seas globally, carry out long-range air strike operations and deploy ground forces worldwide.
Recognizing the unique security we enjoy, fiscal responsibility is needed now more than ever. Secretary Gates is leading an effort to shift $100 billion over five years from overhead to warfighting, but this will not be sufficient. Defense spending must actually fall.
This will require a decision to prioritize defense missions that are probable, consequential, achievable and appropriate, to calculate acceptable levels of risk, and to tailor the force and its budget to match.
Dismantling the Qaeda network and dealing with cyber-security should be our top military priorities. Large-scale conventional combat, conventional deterrence and sea-lane patrolling also are important, but our challenges in these areas are less severe and our capabilities are already more than adequate. Most importantly, counterinsurgency and nation-building should decline significantly in priority after our forces depart Iraq and Afghanistan.
Setting such mission priorities would do what the February Quadrennial Defense Review failed to do: constrain the defense budget to strategy and priority missions and deliberately manage risk. It would also demand tough choices on personnel and investment — the areas that Secretary Gates has said he most wants to protect.
The military has grown by 92,000 ground forces over the past decade in order to conduct long counterinsurgency and nation-building campaigns — part of what Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey calls the “era of persistent conflict.” But persistent conflict is unlikely because the U.S. can choose the conflicts in which it will engage. The ground force growth should gradually be reversed.
In addition, our European and Asian allies are sufficiently secure to permit a drawdown of the 80,000 U.S. forces permanently stationed overseas. This includes South Korea, whose military now is ample to deal with North Korea.
Another 100,000 positions can be eliminated from the half-million service members that the Pentagon classifies as working in overhead positions. Limiting the military’s missions means that they will not need to be replaced by civilians or contractors.
Mission prioritization and management discipline should also govern investment choices. The U.S. is still buying programs designed for Cold War-style conventional conflict. It can lower that investment by continuing the current fighter-jet programs rather than building a new F-35 line; by slowing the rate at which it buys new Virginia-class attack submarines; by divesting from missile defenses that are either unwanted or unworkable; and by canceling the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle designed for the sort of amphibious assaults last executed in the Korean War. Only conflict with China or Russia would warrant these costs, but neither is likely and it would take decades for either state to match America’s current superiority.
Choosing mission priorities, managing efficiently and budgeting accordingly can contribute roughly $1 trillion to deficit reduction by 2020 while making the Pentagon more fiscally responsible and maintaining — even sharpening — the point of the spear.
Rarely has this task been more urgent. Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently concluded that “the single-biggest threat to our national security is our debt.” He is right, and now is the time to address it. U.S. national security permits us to spend less on defense, and our fiscal circumstances require it.
Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at the School of International Service, American University, and distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and Matthew Leatherman, research associate at the Stimson Center. A fuller version of this article appears in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs.