Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The need for honest risk assessment

The president and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced today the administration’s approach to cutting defense spending back to a $583 billion topline, the requirement for next year’s budget. The guidance issued today does not set the parameters for all the cuts necessitated by last summer’s budget agreement — a whopping $500 billion across a ...

Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)
Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)
Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)

The president and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced today the administration's approach to cutting defense spending back to a $583 billion topline, the requirement for next year's budget. The guidance issued today does not set the parameters for all the cuts necessitated by last summer's budget agreement -- a whopping $500 billion across a decade will yet need to be found, and DOD has been loudly saying that cannot be done within this strategy. The Pentagon's approach is sensible, but the real problem is the president avoiding a serious discussion about risk -- and that is dangerous when cuts of this magnitude are underway.

There's not really much news in the strategic guidance released to such fanfare today. The administration hype is that this is a new strategy. That is not true. The "two war strategy" under discussion is not a strategy at all, but a planning construct for sizing the force.  Previously, the U.S. has maintained active duty forces ostensibly adequate to fight two wars nearly simultaneously in different regions. But the planning translates only loosely to actual war (because of allied military and political limitations, the Kosovo air campaign required all the assets of one war, even though it was a limited mission). The president -- any president -- is not going to refuse our treaty commitments to the defense of Korea if it is attacked, or precipitously end operations in Afghanistan if that should happen. By cutting the force, you are not saying we will only fight one war, you are saying we will take greater risk and time to fight the wars we need. If the President is really saying we will not fight two wars simultaneously, it would beg challenges between now and 2014, when he's committed to ending the one war we are fighting.

Panetta's plan looks to (the details of programmatic cuts are not yet public) take the bulk of cuts in the size of the force, which is not a bad choice, given the administration has chosen to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manpower is the quickest return of cash, and our military has demonstrated in the past decade that it can recruit, train, and equip quality soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to surge our ranks when the demands of two wars require more forces. Whether Panetta's approach remains viable as the sequestration cuts go into effect next year is an open question; even accepting we're unlikely to choose to fight our wars by counterinsurgency means anytime soon, I'm skeptical enough can be cut from manpower to bring the budget into alignment. 

The president and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced today the administration’s approach to cutting defense spending back to a $583 billion topline, the requirement for next year’s budget. The guidance issued today does not set the parameters for all the cuts necessitated by last summer’s budget agreement — a whopping $500 billion across a decade will yet need to be found, and DOD has been loudly saying that cannot be done within this strategy. The Pentagon’s approach is sensible, but the real problem is the president avoiding a serious discussion about risk — and that is dangerous when cuts of this magnitude are underway.

There’s not really much news in the strategic guidance released to such fanfare today. The administration hype is that this is a new strategy. That is not true. The "two war strategy" under discussion is not a strategy at all, but a planning construct for sizing the force.  Previously, the U.S. has maintained active duty forces ostensibly adequate to fight two wars nearly simultaneously in different regions. But the planning translates only loosely to actual war (because of allied military and political limitations, the Kosovo air campaign required all the assets of one war, even though it was a limited mission). The president — any president — is not going to refuse our treaty commitments to the defense of Korea if it is attacked, or precipitously end operations in Afghanistan if that should happen. By cutting the force, you are not saying we will only fight one war, you are saying we will take greater risk and time to fight the wars we need. If the President is really saying we will not fight two wars simultaneously, it would beg challenges between now and 2014, when he’s committed to ending the one war we are fighting.

Panetta’s plan looks to (the details of programmatic cuts are not yet public) take the bulk of cuts in the size of the force, which is not a bad choice, given the administration has chosen to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manpower is the quickest return of cash, and our military has demonstrated in the past decade that it can recruit, train, and equip quality soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to surge our ranks when the demands of two wars require more forces. Whether Panetta’s approach remains viable as the sequestration cuts go into effect next year is an open question; even accepting we’re unlikely to choose to fight our wars by counterinsurgency means anytime soon, I’m skeptical enough can be cut from manpower to bring the budget into alignment. 

There is also a crucial guns versus butter issue Panetta fails to take up, at least so far. As Arnold Punaro from the Defense Business Board puts it, unless major changes are made to DOD medical and retirement programs, "If we allow the current trend to continue, we’re going to turn the Department of Defense into a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist." The same growth of medical and retirement programs that is the principal driver of our federal debt is also crowding out other spending within the DOD budget. I expect that is where Panetta will focus the second tranche of cuts.

The Panetta approach reverses his predecessor’s relentless attention to near term demands of the wars we are fighting and accepting greater risk in the out years. Gates’ strategy heavily weighted the need for manning and equipping the current force for winning two simultaneous wars by counter-insurgency, the most personnel-intensive and long-term approach. Gates’ strategy was also, it must be acknowledged, the most likely to produce results conducive to America’s security and a stable, prosperous international order. Other means (stand-off strikes, greater reliance on allies, adopting a marginal contribution formula, decapitation attacks, etc) are cheaper but bring greater risk of failure to achieve stable political objectives and a wide range of collateral problems. Gates’ strategy is a costly way to win the nation’s wars, but it is also the best of our current options.

Focusing on future wars is, by comparison, much more fun and less demanding. The American military holds a sway of such commanding dominance that no country could rationally conclude it will defeat us symmetrically. Our excellence has driven potential enemies to asymmetrical strategies, which is the right kind of problem for a military to have — better than the alternative of an enemy believing it can achieve its aims by destroying your military. And the more time an adversary gives the American military, the better we will get, because of the ingenuity, determination, and adaptiveness of America’s fighters, as our current wars have demonstrated.

The Pentagon has argued both that the magnitude of cuts are destructive and that the legislation necessitates across the board cuts that prevent any sensible strategic choice. I remain skeptical Congress would insist on arbitrary means of cutting spending within an agreed topline, but Congress would do well to explicitly relax the latter constraint, giving Secretary Panetta the widest possible range of choice for how to implement the next $500 billion in cuts.  

But even if the Pentagon makes sensible cuts, the president’s approach is damaging by two critical omissions: first, by glossing over the increased risk associated with cutting our forces, and second by not reducing only defense spending. The president has no debt or deficit reduction program beyond cuts to Defense — it was the only department singled out in his attempt to regain control of last spring/summer’s debt debate. President Obama’s approach is to cut defense while splashing out in spending on domestic programs.  

As with ending the wars and claiming there is no trade off between security and our liberties, the president is trying to have it both ways: to cut defense by pretending there is no risk associated with the cuts. At the Pentagon today, President Obama said "so, yes, our military will be leaner, but the world must know — the United States is going to maintain our military superiority." But pretending there is no risk does not make it true.

Cutting the size of our forces does increase the likelihood of challenges by adversaries, reduce our ability to train with allies and reassure them with our presence, and increase the strain on our own military.  

Moreover, the president’s policy incurs greater risk to our national security without gaining the strategic advantage of greater fiscal solvency. It’s bad strategy, and looks an awful lot like shameless political pandering, especially given the White House’s release of a presidential letter and breathless emphasis on this being the first time any president has held a press conference from the Pentagon.    

One cannot say the president is missing in action on the major national security issue of our country’s solvency — the president is missing but was never in action. Republicans in Congress should prevent the president incurring greater risk in defense to fund his domestic priorities, and Republican presidential candidates should force the president to justify the trade-offs of his policies. While conservatives have a range of views on whether to cut defense spending, we are agreed it should not be cut to prime the pump for continued fiscal profligacy.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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