What to Expect of Barack Obama's Second Term Defense Policy

President Obama is likely to maintain the status quo on defense policy in his next four years.

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A CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter flies past the forward-deployed amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga and the Royal Thai Navy medium landing ship HTMS Surin during a live amphibious assault exercise.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

As the lame duck prepares to get to work next week, many members of Congress are wondering what a second Obama term will entail for defense policy. In this case, the past is prologue.

Defense strategy and budgets will continue to shrink. As policymakers attempt to address the "fiscal cliff," pressure is on to make a deal—any deal—before January 2. While the Speaker of the House said this week there should not be more defense budget cuts as part of any deal to avert sequestration, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, has already proposed another $100 billion in military cuts over the next decade beyond the $487 billion contained in the Budget Control Act. The Levin proposal will surely be embraced as the new floor for negotiating further cuts—even though the military has contributed more to debt reduction than any other federal agency. 

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

Locking down active duty ground forces cuts. In January, the Obama administration laid out a new defense strategy that placed heavy emphasis on the Asia-Pacific while downsizing war plans away from large-scale ground campaigns. This strategic shift will continue, however, as the supposed additional funding that is expected to come to the Navy and Air Force at the expense of the Army and Marine Corps will likely not materialize—leaving many to wonder what is new about the Asia pivot.

Large scale nuclear reductions. The New START agreement unilaterally reduced America's nuclear arsenal to Russia's warhead level, and further cuts to strategic forces are likely over the next four years. One alternative floated last year by an influential outside group was a dramatic reduction to only 300 nuclear warheads, down from a cap of 1,500 under the New START. Even if nuclear reductions are not this extensive, it is clear that America's nuclear arsenal will continue to drop.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

More green energy initiatives for the military. One rare area of increased defense investment during the first Obama term was in green energy projects for the Department of Defense. Most notably, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has presided over the growth of a "great green fleet" designed to boost fuel efficiency, even though a 2011 Department of Defense report found that the Navy could spend an extra $2.2 billion per year if it buys all the biofuels it has pledged to burn. Investments like these are not cheap, but they will continue.

Continued emphasis on offshore balancing as military solution to conflict. Although the Pentagon is planning for no more large-scale ground campaigns, the threat of terrorism is not going to disappear and the world is increasingly unsettled. Consequently, the administration will continue to rely on drones and special operations forces to target and eliminate terrorist threats. But drones need a significant amount of support personnel to operate effectively and special forces need regular forces to draw upon for recruitment and support in the field. As the increased reliance on offshore balancing continues without adequate investment in their supporting elements, this preferred method of engagement will be hindered by defense capability cuts elsewhere.

  • Read Robert Nolan: 5 Foreign Policy Challenges Obama Can Tackle From Home
  • Read Michael P. Noonan: The Defense Budget Challenges Obama Faces
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