Dale R. Herspring
President Barack Obama’s Jan. 5 speech on cutting the Pentagon’s budget was one of the most significant speeches of his tenure. It isn’t clear year how much is being cut from which weapons systems, but we know enough to be concerned.
In contrast to some past presidents (Jimmy Carter comes to mind), Obama did not just cut the budget. Instead, he met with his military advisers multiple before coming up with this new strategic approach. This is the same approach he took prior to the “surge.” He sat down with generals and admirals and heard them out. I don’t doubt that some of the meetings were hot and heavy, with the military fighting for every weapon and program it has or would like.
As for the proposed cuts, they are aimed at the Army and Marine Corps. The approach was tried by George Bush’s secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. He argued that high-tech weapons could replace the Army’s heavy reliance on numbers. Unfortunately, the technology was not quite up to the standards Rumsfeld expected. In both Iraqi and Afghanistan, it was discovered that it was very difficult for the military to function without boots on the ground.
This approach may work if we only need Special Operations forces. That means a small number of highly trained Seals or Special Forces we can insert around the world to handle specific missions such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden. These forces would be supplemented by drone aircraft and advanced cybersecurity.
As for traditional ground forces, they will face major cuts. The Army, for example, now numbers 562,000. Over the next decade it will be cut by 80,000 to a force of 482,000. The Marine Corps will be forced to get rid of 20,000 troops, leaving it with 183,000.
There also will be major cuts in weapons systems, although the president has not said how many and which ones. Purchases of the F-35 will be delayed to save money, though that tactic often doesn’t work.
Why make major cuts in the military when Iran is unpredictable at best and China is becoming a major military power? There are number of factors to consider. First, the United States has serious financial woes. To save money, something has to be cut, and the military is a very inviting target.
Second, Obama is fully engaged in his re-election campaign. His base on the far left has been begging him for some time to take on the military. He thinks these cuts will help reassure his base that he is carrying out his election promises. Third, the United States is winding down after two wars — Afghanistan and Iraq.
Personally, I have no problem with Obama focusing on Asia and reminding the Asians that we are a Pacific power. We began this repositioning by stationing 5,000 Marines in Australia.
The problem is that we appear to be giving up our ability to field large numbers of soldiers in a conventional campaign. What is stop the Chinese from engaging in a land war against one of their neighbors? What will the United States have to stop them. High tech weapons that may hit them around the periphery? Nuclear weapons are not a real option.
There is another problem with Obama’s speech — its timing. In case the president didn’t notice, we are in a chess match with the Iranians right now. They just finished naval exercises and are warning us not to permit the USS John Stennis, an aircraft carrier, to transit the Strait of Hormuz. While our European allies might understand exactly we are doing, I worry about how it will be received in Tehran. After all, the mullahs have only seen weakness from us. We constantly threaten them and end up doing nothing. They may see this as another sign of our unwillingness to take action.
What worries me the most is that I have been through similar cutbacks in the past. Once we carry them out, another conflict occurs , and we learn that some of the weapons or personnel we had in our inventory are no longer available. So we pull in untrained reservists and retirees to fill the gap and scramble to build up our weapons systems. Given the situation, those steps cost more than maintaining them would have.
President Obama says he will not permit our security to be weakened. I simply do not believe him. And forcing the military’s top brass to stand behind him is not all that reassuring.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.