Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The defense budget implosion (IX): The end of U.S. policy since WWII?

I don’t automatically blog about every new report from CNAS, but I am particularly struck by one being issued this week about what future defense budget cuts might be and what their effects might be. Bottom line: They say that if the cuts go beyond about $550 billion, it will be difficult to carry out ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I don't automatically blog about every new report from CNAS, but I am particularly struck by one being issued this week about what future defense budget cuts might be and what their effects might be. Bottom line: They say that if the cuts go beyond about $550 billion, it will be difficult to carry out the basic American policy since World War II of being engaged internationally.

Lotsa people are rattling on these days about defense in an age of austerity, but the report's authors -- retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, Nora Bensahel, and Travis Sharp -- do a good job of doing more and showing how the meat will come off the bones. They look at four levels of budget cuts: About $350 billion, about $500 billion, about $650 billion, and about $800 billion.

They don't quite say so, but they seem to favor the first two -- which is significant, because they (at "the Obama Administration's favorite think tank") are saying they could live with $500 billion in cuts. Go much deeper than that, they say, and we start creeping toward isolationism.

I don’t automatically blog about every new report from CNAS, but I am particularly struck by one being issued this week about what future defense budget cuts might be and what their effects might be. Bottom line: They say that if the cuts go beyond about $550 billion, it will be difficult to carry out the basic American policy since World War II of being engaged internationally.

Lotsa people are rattling on these days about defense in an age of austerity, but the report’s authors — retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, Nora Bensahel, and Travis Sharp — do a good job of doing more and showing how the meat will come off the bones. They look at four levels of budget cuts: About $350 billion, about $500 billion, about $650 billion, and about $800 billion.

They don’t quite say so, but they seem to favor the first two — which is significant, because they (at "the Obama Administration’s favorite think tank") are saying they could live with $500 billion in cuts. Go much deeper than that, they say, and we start creeping toward isolationism.

The report bursts with provocative thoughts and suggestions. Surprisingly for a study whose lead writer is a retired Army general, it favors the Air Force and Navy over the Army and Marines. It wants to cut both ground forces back to their pre-9/11 sizes. In the deeper cut scenarios, it basically wants the Marines to get out of fixed-wing aviation, both lift and strike. It also wants the Marines out of tanks, and wants the Army to reduce its number of tanks, and to move a lot of the heavy Army force into the Reserves. It wants to radically cut back on buying new weapons, but instead to keep alive R&D until a new threat emerges.

The report also says we will be focusing less on the Middle East in the coming years and more on the Asia/Pacific rim.   

I asked Barno about how the report is going down at the Pentagon. "We did find the Army’s reaction a bit more sparky than the other services’," he said. No word yet on whether they are cutting off his pension. Barno also said that operationally, the services are joint, but in budgeting, they have failed to become so.  

Travis Sharp, who reminds me of John Hamre maybe 15 years ago — someone who really understands the interaction of budget and strategy — commented that "the services are in a full defensive crouch" right now.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.