CSBA’s Let’s-Adjust-To-Decline mistake

The otherwise respectable Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments – which sometimes gets things right and sometimes horribly wrong – has recently published a lengthy research paper written by a number of its analysts led by the Center’s President, Andrew F. Krepinevich. The Krepinevich team says, in essence, that because America is suffering huge budgetary and economic problems while its relative military strength is declining in comparison to that of its competitors, and because it faces several serious security challenges, further defense cuts – beyond the first tier of the BCA – are almost inevitable and the US needs to “adjust” its military and its program of record accordingly, while finding efficiencies in its defense budget, prioritizing cutting-edge weapon systems that will impose significant costs on America’s enemies, placing a greater burden on allies for their own defense, and devolving more responsibility for regional security to select allies while “negotiating” with the principal adversary.

But the CSBA’s analysts – including Mr Krepinevich – are wrong. Here’s why.

As explained here and here, providing for America’s own defense – to say nothing of defending its allies – cannot be done on the cheap and requires significant and ongoing investments (although America’s defense spending is very modest today, at just 4.22% of GDP). Defending America means defending  a country with a huge territory, a 308 million population, three long coasts, two long land borders, and an economy totally dependent on foreign trade and thus on the world’s sealanes. It means protecting America and its national interests from threats ranging from Russian bombers and their escort fighters flying to, or near, American airspace, to Russian, Chinese, and North Korean ICBMs, to short-range BMs launched from cargo ships off American shores, to cyber attacks, to terrorism, to Mexican drug cartels, not to mention pirates attacking civilian ships and aggressive countries like China claiming entire seas as their internal lakes and seeking to restrict American shipping through these seas. Any notion that such a country with such national interests can be credibly defended on the cheap, with a significantly reduced defense budget, is ridiculous and delusional. CSBA analysts are deluding themselves if they believe the contrary.

Perhaps a majority of Americans, faced with a choice between entitlements and defense, wants to see deeper defense cuts than those called for by the First Tier of the BCA (although I don’t think so). But if that is true, it means, to put it bluntly, that the majority of Americans no longer want to be credibly defended and are no longer willing to pay for what is needed to protect their own country.

There’s no way around these facts. A strong military designed to defend a large, extensive country (and its civilian shipping and crucial sealanes around the world) costs. A lot. Telling people otherwise is like telling people that 4+4=3. We can do a poll of the American people (or even a national referendum) about whether 4+4=3, but will that make four plus four equal three in reality? Of course not.

(Note: Soviet science knows cases in which four plus four does equal three, but that cannot be applied in this case.) 🙂

Or, to quote Adm. Michael Mullen (the same Adm. Mullen who famously remarked that “the number one threat to our national security is our debt):

“When I look at the effect that a decade of war has had on us and our people, when I consider the looming threats posed by Iran and North Korea, when I shudder at the enormity of the challenges in cyberspace, or ponder the types of military capabilities China races to the field, I become more convinced than ever that as a nation, we can ill afford to lose our edge.(…)

Cuts in defense spending are fair game, and we should do our part. But cut too deeply and we will burn the very blanket of protection we’ve been charged to provide our fellow citizens. Cut too deeply now and we will harm, perhaps irreparably, the industrial base from which we procure the materials of war.”

The “solutions” that the Krepinevich team recommends are no solutions at all. If the US defense budget is deeply cut, they can only slightly reduce the pain, or the scale of the damage that would be done, but not significantly reduce, let alone avoid, that huge damage.

For instance:

  • Relying more on allies will be extremely difficult during the present economic conditions. Allied countries – especially those in Europe – have suffered from the economic crisis even worse than the US has. Furthermore, many of them have higher debt-to-GDP ratios than the US does. So European countries cannot really afford to provide for their defense on their own. Even then, the US would still have to provide a large nuclear umbrella to its allies, unless it wants to see nuclear proliferation accelerate.
  • Relying on key, strategic allies to be the “policemen” in their regions is also a risky proposition. India is the only credible candidate for this role, and its defense spending and military capabilities are still lagging badly behind those of China. Japan is deeply in debt and suffers from post-WW2 defense limitations. Brazil cannot even select, and place an order for, fighter aircraft.
  • As the CSBA itself has admitted, relying on key allies to be “the policemen” in their regions doesn’t always work. Australia and South Korea, which did upgrade their defenses during the 1970s, nonetheless were never the policemen of their regions. South Vietnam was overrun by the Communists in 1975, and the Shah of Iran fell in 1979.
  • China, America’s current principal adversary and biggest peer competitor (the other one being Russia), is refusing to hold any talks regarding its arms buildup or its nuclear arsenal. The New START treaty, contrary to the claims of the Krepinevich team, compels only the US to reduce its nuclear arsenal while Russia is allowed to increase its own arsenal, which was (and still is) under New START limits (and is growing, not shrinking as the Krepinevich team claimed).
  • Developing breakthrough military technologies/weapons which will allow the US to decisively defeat its enemies and impose costs on them is great, but it will cost a lot of money; given the downward pressure on the defense budget (which the Krepinevich team says will only get worse), funding them will require cuts to other crucial military capabilities unless defense spending stays roughly at its current level or is increased. Furthermore, because Congress is skeptical of defense spending and of new weapon programs in general, obtaining Congressional authorization and appropriation for such programs will be difficult.

The Krepinevich team points out to two historical examples – Britain of the early 1900s and America of the 1969-1980 years – as examples of countries which, faced with declining defense budgets at a time when their relative military and economic power was shrinking and that of their rivals growing, adopted strategies that allowed them to preserve their preeminent, dominant position on the global stage.

This is true only with regard to Britain of the early 1900s. It did invest in revolutionary capabilities, as the Krepinevich team narrates in its paper; it did make significant efficiencies; it did scale back its commitments overseas and thus accepted increased risk; and it did find new allies to rely on. But that was possible primarily because those new allies had few conflicts of interest. The US had virtually no contentious issues with Britain by the early 20th century; France achieved an entente cordiale with it in 1904 and began coordinating plans for the future defense of France with London in 1906; Russia, weakened by the Russo-Japanese War, was removed as a threat to India, resolved its ME disputes with Britain, and signed an alliance with London; Japan – as the Krepinevich team noted – became Britain’s treaty ally and “regional policeman” in East Asia. Thus, Britain was allowed to concentrate on its sole remaining enemy: Germany.

Also, in Britain, the parliament of the time was not searching for every opportunity to cut the defense budget and every weapon program in it, including crucial cost-imposing capabilities. In fact, from 1909 to 1914, Britain’s defense spending increased.

The Krepinevich team’s recommendation of the 1970s’ failed policies is totally ridiculous, patently wrong, and calls into question the judgment of the study’s authors. The detente and arms treaties with the Soviet Union did not even slow, let alone halt, the arms race with Moscow (except that Moscow was the only side racing by then); nor did they slow down the USSR’s expansionist actions. In fact, that problem grew worse in the 1970s, as the NVA overran South Vietnam and the Soviet Army overran Afghanistan while Soviet-sponsored proxies began to seize other countries around the world.

The team would have us believe that we owe the development of the revolutionary capabilities of the 1980s and 1990s – such as stealth aircraft and precision munitions – to the Carter Administration. They even claim that the F-117 and B-2 programs were initiated by that administration. It has probably escaped their attention that the Carter Administration deeply cut (and gutted) America’s defense from FY1977 to FY1980, and reversed course in calendar year 1980 (preparing the FY1981 budget) only partially. The meager increase in defense spending they proposed turn out to be inadequate, and the Reagan Administration had to do the work of rebuilding America’s military. And even that meager 5% increase came only after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and during a difficult reelection fight against Ronald Reagan, a fight Carter eventually (and deservedly) lost.

America’s geopolitical position and national security deteriorated dramatically during the 1970s, in large part due to the policies that the Krepinevich team hails as a model for the US today. Rather than preserve America’s geopolitical position, they dramatically worsened it and imperiled national security, leaving Ronald Reagan with a huge mess to clean up in 1981.

In sum, the K-team is wrong. With a significantly reduced defense budget, America will not be able to provide for its own defense – let alone protect its allies. There’s no way around that fact. If the American people want to deeply cut defense spending nonetheless, this essentially means they no longer want to be defended.


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