The United States Government is in debt over $15 trillion - about the annual value of America’s gross domestic product. Dramatic cuts in spending are necessary. But if the current 2013 defense spending plan wending its way through Congress is not considerably altered, it will launch America on a decade of cuts that will undermine the superpower’s power and credibility. The implications are global, not least for Georgia.
As it happens every February, a couple of weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama submitted a proposed budget to the Congress. With regard to defense, this proposal provided the proposed spending details to match a new defense strategy that was released on January 5.
The proposal calls for defense spending in 2013, including decreasing expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, of $614 billion, just $32 billion below 2012. However, that would be just a down payment on $487 billion of cuts over the next ten years.
Worse, if the two political parties in Congress, and the Congress and the President, fail to agree on budget cuts, a further $500 billion could be chopped from the defense budget during the same period. So what looks today like a half trillion dollars in cuts could on January 1, 2013 transform into a full trillion. Of course, this gives Obama considerable leverage to insist upon his proposed budget.
However, if the Congress fails to alter America’s budget course, we will be headed not toward a drawdown underpinned by a more peaceful world, but toward a drawdown that could undermine a more peaceful world.
Here is an outline of what could happen. The U.S. Army could lose 72,000 troops, including eight brigade combat teams. The U.S. Marine Corps could lose 20,000 Marines, including six battalions and seven tactical air squadrons. The U.S. Air Force could lose seven tactical air squadrons and 130 transport aircraft of various types. The U.S. Navy could lose nine ships. The reserves, which have been essential in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, will also be cut.
All this is purportedly based upon a new strategy that reflects the waning of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, building of a smaller but more able force, rebalancing U.S. attention toward Asia and the Middle East and depending on more innovative partnerships around the world. In reality, this strategy is not based upon global strategic realities, but upon self-imposed domestic fiscal constraints. Consequently, it is fraught with problems.
The most glaring problem is that Iraq and Afghanistan remain as huge challenges. The political vacuum left behind in Iraq is growing, with Iran poised to fill it. Syria is literally in flames and the course of things across the Middle East and North Africa remains uncertain. Meanwhile, Iran, encouraged by Russia and China, is fanning the flames of discord anywhere it can. Russia’s intense interest and the proximity of this region to Georgia - Iran is closer to Tbilisi than Sochi - makes this an important matter for Georgian security.
Afghanistan, as demonstrated by the conflagration over the accidental burning of some Korans, is a conflict waning only in the minds of some NATO politicos. In the corridors of Brussels, we can debate whether this conflict was well handled or whether we have been there too long. In the mountains of Afghanistan, every ISAF member has too much invested to walk away. Make no mistake - vital interests are at stake, and Georgia is the European country closest to this fight.
And despite the current western vogue for chasing terrorists, nation states remain the major challenge to the U.S. and its allies.
Iran is proceeding apace toward nuclear weapons.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has just announced plans for a major military buildup over the next decade - 400 modern intercontinental nuclear missiles, 28 missile and attack submarines, 50 surface ships, 600 fighter aircraft, air defense systems, short-range missiles and 2,300 new tanks. He is unlikely to achieve these goals, but the point is that while America draws down, Russia builds up.
Russia’s domestic travails may keep its army at home, but internal troubles may also impel it to strike out at this or that neighboring country. Russian tanks parked in the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Samachablo stand as a stark reminder that Putin’s Russia remains one aggressive country.
Turning to the Pacific, the U.S. Department of Defense warns that China is engaged “in a sustained effort to develop the capability to attack, at long ranges, military forces that might deploy or operate within the western Pacific.” These so called anti-access or area denial capabilities include anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, surface ships and maritime strike aircraft.
In sum, as America draws down, China builds up - in the Pacific, which Washington says is its new area of emphasis.
In reality, the area of the Pacific, stretching to the Middle East, is vast, and covered by water. And that water - from Honolulu to Yokohama and Yokohama to the Persian Gulf - must be patrolled by the U.S. Navy, backed by U.S. air mobility, both of which stand to be slashed.
Finally, the notion of relying more heavily on global partnerships around the world is a false premise. Do not imagine, for example, any big move by European NATO allies to compensate for America’s rebalancing toward the Pacific, or any newly discovered political gumption to see Russia for the bully that it is.
This sort of negative analysis can be met with some bold assertions about what is proposed that America will do over the next decade. Retaining the bomber force and all 11 aircraft carriers, and stationing four destroyers in Spain and littoral combat ships in Singapore and Bahrain are among the positive steps contained in the new strategy and budget proposal. Protecting cyber defense spending is also a huge positive move. The bottom line, some will argue, is that America will remain the most powerful country on earth.
Yes, it will, but that is not the bottom line for two reasons. First, when it becomes apparent - as it will - that the world has become more, not less, dangerous, rebuilding lost capabilities will take time and more money. Second, we do not want to find out the hard way how powerful America is - we prefer not to fight. We want America’s perceived power to deter war and conflict. We want to preclude anyone from even thinking about harming America or America’s allies. In international politics, perception means a lot.
As the U.S. Congress considers the 2013 Defense Budget, it should think carefully how America will be perceived by its friends and its adversaries.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 90, published 5 March 2012.