Small Wars

This Week at War: Into the Unknown

This Week at War: Into the Unknown

The budget crisis brings uncertainty to the Pentagon — and U.S. allies

President Barack Obama quickly signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 into law this week, averting a possible default on U.S. government debt. But officials at the Pentagon are still in the dark over what funding they can expect, either for this year or for the rest of the decade. Making plans for multiyear and in some cases multidecade programs and missions requires a few reasonably trustworthy assumptions. The debt crisis that still hovers over Washington will prevent those responsible for defense strategy and planning from getting stable assumptions until 2013 — and maybe not even then. Until those stable assumptions arrive, no one can have much certainty about U.S. defense strategy or what the Pentagon’s global military presence and capabilities will be for the rest of this decade.

The debt deal did pin down $684 billion in security spending for fiscal year 2012 and $686 billion for fiscal year 2013 (security spending is now defined as spending for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and State; the intelligence community, and the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons program — but not the current wars). The White House asserted that the debt deal cuts the Pentagon’s base budget by $350 billion over the next 10 years, though as FP‘s Josh Rogin reported, such a conclusion is little more than a guess.

Adding to the confusion is the prospect that the Pentagon will suffer an additional $600 billion in cuts over the next 10 years if the Congress’s ad hoc budget “supercommittee” fails to push through a second budget deal by Christmas. Although the threat of an additional mammoth cut to the Pentagon is designed to encourage an agreement on Capitol Hill, this “trigger” is an empty threat. The next Congress in 2013 will set its own policies, and both the political climate in Washington and the geostrategic climate abroad are likely to have shifted. Obama himself, the official most responsible for U.S. security, has spoken out against a second large cut to the Pentagon.

But Pentagon officials can’t just put important decisions on hold for two years while they wait for solid planning guidance. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his lieutenants are assuming that their damage will be limited to the $350 billion described in the White House fact sheet, but relying on this (relatively speaking) rosy scenario may be a poor bureaucratic and political strategy. Further, it assumes that in the subsequent phases of the budget struggle, negotiators will happily ring-fence the Pentagon and focus only on entitlements, other domestic spending, and taxes — a dubious assumption.

Panetta and his colleagues would be wiser to assume a more pessimistic budget scenario. By assuming the worst, it will be easier to add unexpected windfalls that may later arrive than to soon have to repeat more wrenching strategic and budget reviews.

More importantly, assuming a pessimistic budget scenario will afford an opportunity for Panetta and his colleagues to confront policymakers with the strategic implications of that scenario. With the pessimistic budget scenarios undoubtedly resulting in significant cuts to force structure, readiness, and modernization, planners could then inform policymakers of which current global security commitments they would like to withdraw from. Planners could describe the future crisis responses or stabilization operations the Army might be too small to handle, the cooperative engagement and disaster relief missions the Navy and Marine Corps won’t be able to perform, or the diplomatic strategies U.S. forces will no longer be able to support. Hopefully, the security implications of those outcomes may force some long-neglected reforms in such areas as the Pentagon’s health system, its retirement programs, and the supervision of its contractors.

A parliamentary committee in Britain reported that the budget cuts that resulted from the British government’s 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) will result in a force too small and too ill-equipped to perform the strategy’s intended goals and missions. In a revealing comment, Gen. David Richards, chief of the British defense staff, said, “We are continually working with our international allies to share operational requirements […] measures we rightly assessed in the SDSR could be relied upon to mitigate capability gaps.”

The United States was no doubt foremost among those allies upon which the British SDSR relied. With the budget storm having now settled for a long stay over Washington, one wonders whether Richards and his counterparts in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East will have to reassess the assumptions they previously made regarding the United States and its presumed ability to assist in “mitigating capability gaps.” The budget battle in Washington will change strategic assumptions — and security strategies — not only in Washington but around the world.

What do demographics mean for military power? Not much.

The rapid growth of China’s economy and the realization that its working-age population — nearly five times the size of the United States’ — is capable of much greater output causes many strategists to wonder how the much longer the United States and its allies can maintain a favorable strategic position in East Asia. Add to that equation the rise of India, whose working-age population will exceed China’s in about 15 years. Such huge labor forces, producing even modest output per worker, should be able to translate into formidable military and strategic power.

But a recent report from the Rand Corp. reminds us that demographics are not military destiny. To be sure, population and productive workers are very useful contributors to military might. But these factors alone have not reliably delivered military success in the past and are even less likely to do so in the future.

Rand’s report points out that China’s policymakers probably don’t need to be reminded that simply having a large population is no guarantee of security. In both the 13th and 17th centuries, China’s Han majority was defeated by Mongol and Manchu invaders in spite of outnumbering these foes by 20 to 100 times. Technology, organization, and will have always been as important as numbers and money in determining military success.

Demographic trends will count for even less in the future. According to Rand, technical expertise supported by reasonable and wisely spent funding will be far more important than manpower for a broad range of likely future military operations. For example, nuclear weapons are an excellent source of security and respect. Israel became a nuclear power in the late 1960s before its population reached 3 million, while North Korea became a nuclear power as its population starved. For these countries and others in the nuclear club, having the will to fund the technical effort was sufficient for achieving a very significant strategic advantage.

Manpower is a similarly minor factor for the creation of many other critical dimensions of military power. Establishing local military control over the “commons” — air, sea, space, the electromagnetic spectrum, and cyberspace — is much more a technical than a manpower task. Space, cyber, and electronic warfare rely on a relatively small number of highly trained technicians. Crew sizes on warships continue to decline and it is very likely that within two decades most military aircraft will be remotely controlled. Having control of the commons is a prerequisite for successful manpower-intensive conventional military operations. A technically skilled but population-deprived actor (state or nonstate) can deny its adversary success by denying that enemy access to the commons.

The irregular warfare campaigns the United States has struggled with over the past decade are more examples of how an advantage in manpower did not result in easy success for the larger combatant. Despite weaker numbers and comparatively puny funding, irregular adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan employed impressive technical expertise with improvised explosives, concealed movement, and infiltration. Should the United States ultimately prevail in these two conflicts, it will likely be the result of using its money to support local allies — a technique also available to other wealthy but manpower-deprived actors.

Rand makes note of the well-known crash in the populations of Europe and Japan and concludes that the United States will have to bear an even greater defense burden in the future. That may be the case, but it doesn’t have to be. As its paper explains, military power in the future will depend not on manpower but on a willingness to support militarily useful technical capabilities. Falling populations should not be an excuse for helplessness. Meager numbers and limited funds have been no deterrent to a wide variety of rogue states, insurgents, terrorist groups, and hackers who have instead sought out vulnerable technical gaps. This reality should provide little comfort to defense planners in either Washington or Beijing.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images; U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Haraz N. Ghanbari/U.S. Navy via Getty Images