international analysis and commentary

Downsizing the US military


As US President Barack Obama travels to the beaches of Normandy to attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the American military is undergoing another historical transition of its own. With the end of its involvement in Afghanistan now in sight, its participation in the Iraq war already in the rearview mirror, new geostrategic challenges looming and a host of political and budgetary pressures hanging over its head, the Defense Department in Washington has begun an important process of reform that, if all goes well, should put it in a much better position to confront a rapidly shifting global landscape. But it won’t be painless.

After announcing from the Rose Garden of the White House that he would leave 9,800 American troops (down from the current 32,000) in Afghanistan in 2015, after the US combat mission comes to a close, Obama traveled to New York State to deliver the commencement address at the graduation ceremony for the cadets of West Point, the country’s premier military academy. There, he put his decision on future troop levels for Afghanistan in the broader context of evolving national security and foreign policy priorities. “The world is changing with accelerating speed. This presents opportunity, but also new dangers. We know all too well, after 9/11, just how technology and globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of the individual, raising the capacity of terrorists to do harm,” Obama said. “[T]o say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military interventions without thinking through the consequences.”

In fact, coming on the heels of more than a decade of costly and generally unsuccessful wars overseas, and of the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression, the planned overhaul of the Pentagon’s budget and objectives has been in the works for some time. The current outlook for American defense spending is enshrined in the Budget of Control Act of August 2011, a complicated agreement between Democrats and Republicans that resulted from drawn-out brinkmanship in Congress over the debt ceiling and affects various spending chapters, largely via the mechanism that triggered the sequestration cuts in March 2012. For the Defense Department this basically translates into spending caps, whose levels have been partially raised (but only for fiscal years 2014 and 2015) by the budget deal reached at the end of 2013 by Democratic Senator Pat Murray and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan.

“The reality for the next few years is that the Defense budget is going to be flat, with a weakness on the downside, that is to say if anything it will be lower than flat,” says Gordon Adams, Professor of US Foreign Policy at the American University in Washington, DC. “I don’t think it’s a particularly bad thing, I think it’s an inevitable thing: we have built down three times since the end of the Korean War, this is the fourth, and every time the American military has survived, every time it has remained the only one in the world capable of global operations.” As a matter of fact, it continues to be the sole provider of worldwide transportation, communication and logistical support and the US Navy and Air Force, in particular, are unrivaled anywhere. Additionally, current spending reductions and caps do not threaten in any way the primacy of the Pentagon budget, which remains enormous by all standards – it comprises alone 40% of the world’s defense spending and is larger than those of the next 17 countries combined.

For practical reasons, the slimming of the US armed forces begins with the Army. We are witnessing the end of the American engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing reordering of the international system,  which is not only adjusting to China as a global powerhouse but also to the emergence of a number of regional powers such as India, South Africa, Iran, Brazil and Turkey, as well as continued political instability in countries across Africa and the Middle East, and from Thailand to Ukraine – all challenges that seem unlikely to call for a large land army. “The US is not going to send large ground forces to other countries to do nation building, so it’s important to reduce troop numbers, beginning with bringing them back to pre-9/11,” says Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense. “The focus should be on air-sea battles, with the Navy taking first priority, the Air Force taking second priority, and with an emphasis on Special Forces, who are small and nimble and not that expensive to begin with.” In the Pentagon budget proposed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in February, Special Forces are the only ones that would be growing.

While the Army is not particularly happy about these developments, and will probably try to resist them, there seems to be a certain degree of consensus in Washington, among experts and the Pentagon leadership overall, about the way forward. The outline is that of a US military no longer taking on the role of the world’s cop, or playing nation building abroad, but rather developing flexible, technologically innovative, rapid-deployment forces that can be quick in and out of a crisis and can effectively confront non-conventional threats such as international terrorism.

The agreement, however, does not seem to extend to Congress, where recalcitrant representatives are fighting the administration and shooting down proposals to retire old weapons systems, reform pay and benefits for the services and close some of the bases in the US in an attempt to defend the narrow interests of their constituents. Besides this political challenge, the Pentagon faces another bureaucratic obstacle to reform, which Professor Adams calls the “back-office problem”, or administrative overhead. “The back-office is about 42% of the Defense budget, there are 1.8 million people supporting a combat force of 1.1 million soldiers who are actually doing the fighting,” he says. “That’s where the Pentagon really needs to get serious.”