Patrick Christy and Evan Moore are senior policy analysts at the Foreign Policy Initiative.
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Recent news reports suggest that some lawmakers in Washington are discussing an additional $100-200 billion in cuts to America's national defense budget over the next decade as part of a potential deal to avoid the looming "sequestration" cuts scheduled to start on Jan. 1, 2013. While we believe that the sequester should be repealed in its entirety, and that policymakers and lawmakers should work together to achieve long-term federal deficit reduction, further cuts to America's national defense are not the solution to our nation's long-term fiscal woes.
The undeniable truth is that the Department of Defense has already received beyond its fair share of cuts in recent years, and present planned levels of spending represent the absolute minimum level that the Pentagon can operate on and still fulfill the nation's current defense strategy. Any further cuts would seriously undermine America's ability to lead globally, and more importantly, severely constrict America's capacity to protect and ensure our interests abroad.
The World Remains a Dangerous Place
While the United States does not face the threat of a rival superpower, the absence of a singular apocalyptic threat does not alone make the world less dangerous. Indeed, in many ways, the security environment of the post-Cold War Era is even more demanding of the United States. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frankly stated in Congressional testimony, "In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime right now." Indeed, the U.S. faces two more fighting seasons in Afghanistan before the 2014 transition to Kabul command, a potential military action against Iran's nuclear program, calls for intervention in Syria to protect innocent civilians from the brutal attacks of the Assad regime, a long-term peacetime competition with the People's Republic of China, and an ongoing counter-terrorism campaign against al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups. This is not a world that is conducive to deep cuts in the national defense budget.
Further Cuts will Devastate the Military
The Pentagon's highest civilian and military leaders have publicly and repeatedly warned that President Obama's current defense budget—which cuts $487 billion over 10 years—is the minimum needed to fund the military's current strategy to defend the United States. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told congressional lawmakers in February 2012, "Anything beyond this [$487 billion in defense cuts], we have to go back to the drawing board on the strategy." Moreover, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that "if additional efforts are made to go after the defense budget, I think it could have a serious impact in terms of our ability to implement" the Pentagon's new global strategy. This strategy, introduced in January of 2011, is itself a step back from the Pentagon's plan in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.
The real world ramifications of further defense cuts span far beyond the halls of Congress. The president's Fiscal Year 2013 budget already leaves devastating gaps in manpower and next-generation systems and programs. Ground forces are facing a massive cut, with the Army losing 80,000 active duty soldiers and the Marine Corps losing some 20,000 active duty personnel. The Air Force is in the middle of a modernization crisis. The Navy's total number of ships has already declined dramatically since 1990, and further cuts could imperil future capital-intensive platforms such as aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and other warships.
With the world no less dangerous today, President Obama's current defense strategy will increasingly strain the U.S. military. A smaller force, with fewer resources, increases the stress, danger, and demands placed on it.
With the shadow of sequestration drawing increasingly near, the U.S. military is on the absolute precipice of becoming a hollowed-out force. If the $500 billion in additional cuts is allowed to proceed, then our national defense will be "truly devastate[d]," as Secretary Panetta said. However, lawmakers should not mistakenly believe that $100-200 billion in additional cuts will be inconsequential. They will be.
As our national leaders seek to negotiate a compromise to avert sequestration and the looming fiscal cliff, it is imperative that lawmakers and policymakers work with the White House to at least preserve current levels of defense spending. Failing to do so would strain our current force structure, place the U.S. military on an accelerated path of steep decline, and severely constrict America's capacity to respond to threats abroad. The Budget Control Act of 2011 was bad policy. Washington should not make the same mistake again.