The Defense Budget Challenges Obama Faces

President Barack Obama's re-election means there will likely be few changes in the U.S. defense budget.

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The guided-missile destroyer USS Milius is docked at Glenn Cruise Terminal in Port Klang, Malaysia.

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the program on national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The results of last night's election ensure that there will not be radical departures from recent discussions surrounding the size of the Defense Department's budget moving forward. What remains to be seen, of course, is whether some form of principled compromise can be reached before sequestration will kick in and remove another roughly $500 billion in defense spending over the next decade. (And right now any such compromise seems to be far from certain.) Regardless, serious thought and planning needs to go into preparing for current and future security threats, challenges, and opportunities because other state and nonstate actors internationally have designs and strategies that they are working to implement whether we like it or not, and we will have less resources to counter them.

Two recent articles by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment's Andrew Krepinevich in Foreign Affairs and by the National War College's Michael Mazarr in The Washington Quarterly offer thoughtful discussions on this matter for planning strategy in a time of austerity. Krepinevich points out that we are where we are because:

For much of the last 20 years, a relatively stable international order and generous budgets have enabled the United States to avoid making difficult choices about defense and strategy. Decisions were often dominated by the domestic politics of defense policy, parochial bureaucratic interests, and sheer inertia rather than rigorous planning. When conflict came, too often strategy ended up meaning throwing ever-greater resources at a problem and hoping that the sheer weight of the effort would enable the United States to prevail. This approach did not succeed in Afghanistan or Iraq, and it is even less attractive now that the challenges to U.S. security are growing while the Pentagon's budgets are diminishing.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Mazarr, for his part, warns about the threat of impending strategic insolvency. In his words,

A perception of strategic insolvency, if not corrected by a readjustment of priorities and commitments, will trigger a decline in perceived credibility of threats and promises. The risk then becomes that, in a future scenario, an American administration will lurch into a crisis assuming that it can take actions with the same effect as before. Instead, a pledge or demand will be ignored by an adversary (or an ally or friend) now unimpressed with the viability of U.S. defense policy—and the United States will find itself in a conflict that its degraded defense posture could not forestall. Advocates of the current paradigm agree with the risk, but have a different solution: expand the defense budget; reaffirm global commitments; reassure allies. But the United States simply does not have that option because, as argued above, the factors closing down on the current paradigm are not merely momentary or reversible—they are structural. The only way out is a recalibrated strategic posture.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Both authors argue that that the United States needs to scale back its international engagements (particularly the deployment of large contingents of land forces overseas), reduce commitments (particularly in Europe), reduce the size of the military (due to personnel costs, which have, according to Krepinevich, increased in terms of compensation "by nearly 50 percent over the past decade"), and rely more on airpower, seapower, precision strikes, and other enablers such as from the cyber domain to achieve objectives.

While there is certainly a lot of good sense in both pieces, their explicit (Krepinevich) and implicit (Mazarr) calls for elevating technological solutions to future threats (and particular threats at that) does make me a bit nervous. Technology, no doubt, is important and essential for achieving our national security interests, but so to are humans. Surely some cuts to personnel numbers can and will take place over the next few years, but the civilian side of the Department of Defense and the Congress need to monitor these reductions very closely to make sure that we are not jettisoning the knowledge and experience of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, particularly those with middle management experience and knowledge, for penny-wise, pound-foolish reasons.

Over the next few months I will return to these matters and engage some of the elements above in more detail.