Defense Budget Cuts Will Hurt American Strategic Planning

Tightening the belt at the Department of Defense will impair the U.S.'s strategic planning and military educational institutions.

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Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

It's a refrain familiar to every Washington policy wonk and political science graduate student: Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu's famous admonition about the need to "know your enemy." Less remembered is the second half of Sun Tzu's prescription for success on the battlefield—to "know yourself." Today, as a result of looming defense cuts and potentially catastrophic drawdowns in the federal budget, the United States is drifting in the direction of not being able to do either. 

Take the case of the National Defense University. Colloquially known as NDU, it currently serves a variety of important functions from its perch at Washington, D.C.'s Fort Leslie McNair, along the Anacostia River. It is the premier school of higher learning for the U.S. Department of Defense and associated agencies within the federal bureaucracy. It promotes international military collaboration, with components like the Center for International Security Affairs (where this author had the privilege of teaching for several years) serving as a magnet for mid- to high-level officials from allied nations to hone their national security and counterterrorism chops. And it is home to several important in-house think tanks, dealing with matters such as weapons of mass destruction proliferation and the intricacies of joint warfighting.

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But all that could be changing. As a result of budgetary belt-tightening measures now being contemplated by the Pentagon, NDU's mandate—and its resources—could soon be trimmed, perhaps significantly so. Proposals recently put forward by the Pentagon's Joint Staff (and reported on by Foreign Policy magazine) have suggested a significant constriction of programmatic activities—including the elimination of at least some of its policy and strategy centers—in order to better "align NDU organization and funding with new fiscal reality."

For the moment, the proposed cuts are manageable; NDU is now facing nearly a 10 percent cut to its $93 million budget. But future reductions aren't out of the question, as military planners have pointedly noted. And NDU isn't an exception; increasingly, other centers of U.S. strategic forecasting are facing the same sort of problems.

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Thus, insiders say that the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon's longstanding and highly regarded long range strategy shop, might soon face a reduction in its operating budget. And, according to observers, if Net Assessment's legendary director, Andrew W. Marshall, retires in the near future as rumored, bureaucrats might move to have the office shuttered altogether.

The U.S. Army War College—the Army's higher learning school for training and doctrine—is likewise under threat. Since last spring, it has begun to cut some 56 staff positions in response to a budgetary squeeze. (For now, at least, the Army War College's naval analogue, the Naval War College, appears to have been spared most of these problems.)

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Tactically, belt-tightening of this sort might be prudent. President Barack Obama's 2013 budget included a 13 percent reduction in operations and maintenance functions across the breadth of the Department of Defense. Those already-deep cuts, moreover, could get much, much deeper if a fiscal deal isn't reached between Congress and the White House before January—when potentially catastrophic "sequester" provisions in the 2011 Budget Control Act automatically kick in. Faced with these developments the Pentagon is, by necessity, planning for a more austere operating environment.

Strategically, however, the long-term results could end up being profound—and profoundly negative. True, many of the institutions being affected are overdue for a facelift to improve both efficiency and relevance. But, if it is carried out carelessly or without proper attention to the more unconventional contributions that they provide, that streamlining could result in a dumbing down of American strategic planning and out-of-the-box thinking about future threats and opportunities. That outcome, in turn, risks making it more difficult for the U.S. and its warfighters to understand the intentions of our adversaries, or our own capabilities and responses.

Needless to say, Sun Tzu would not approve.

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