Friday, 28 January 2011

Defence on the cheap?

Recent developments in Congress show that it is not only the UK cutting defence spending.  Is the US now condemned to defeat against a rising China?  Don’t be so hasty...

The Pentagon looks set to take a hit on its budget of up to $23 billion; a scary thought for those of us who depend on the US as a security blanket, right?  Maybe, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.  I’m almost sick of hearing the phrase myself, but in ‘these times of austerity’ cuts are necessary, across the board. 
Defence is an area in which cuts typically tend to make one wince.  After all, the clue is in the name: defence.  And so it is important to make clear from the off-set that these cuts are not a good thing.  In an ideal world, defence would increase year upon year so as to figuratively, and perhaps appropriately in this instance, literally blow the competition out of the water.  But there are ways of out-manoeuvring economic hardship.  In this instance, the Pentagon ought to take heed of one of its own concepts: the OODA loop.
By Observing, Orienting, Deciding and Acting, the Pentagon will be able to maintain the US Forces’ ability to stay ahead of the game, that is, maintain a position in which it will be able to overcome potential threats.  Let’s look at the bigger picture here; after all, that is what strategy is really all about.  What is on the horizon?  Full blown conventional war with China?  Perhaps dismissing that contingency out of hand would be naive, but it would appear more likely that irregular wars will retain the spotlight and continue to unfold in the steady rhythm which they have adhered to since The Berlin Wall was pulled down.
Even if we do consider war with China to be the most likely contingency, Beijing continues to languish behind Washington in terms of defence spending.  In real terms, the US is only actually returning to levels of spending seen around 2004, not 1904.  In terms of per capita spending, the new Pentagon budget will mean a figure of around $1,713.  China’s per capita spending is around $61.  Finally, while the US is stretching it’s military with a budget of $526 billion this year, China will surely be burning money for fun with a budget of around $80 billion, no?
Ok, so that is perhaps a little facetious.  After all, we need to look at longer term trends; we need to consider China’s future intentions; and the US needs to stay as far ahead as is possible.  But providing Congress isn’t planning to cut defence annually for the next two decades then a slight dip does not warrant an epidemic of panic.
Leslie Gelb commented in Foreign Affairs in November that GDP now matters more than force in defence.  In truth, he is stretching it there, a bit.  But there is an interesting point at hand.  What is the point of the military in the end?  Primarily to protect the nation that it serves.  I would suggest it’s worth having a nation worthy of saving in the first place and that starts at home.  This isn’t a return to isolationism; it’s not an end to expeditionary capabilities.  It’s pragmatism.  The US will continue to dominate the military sphere and what damage is done through these cuts can be remedied through tighter cooperation with allies and a concentration of force through instruments like NATO.  There will be a day when Pentagon defence spending rises again.  But to see that day, the US needs to stop the economic rot at home first and cuts are the first step on the road to recovery.
by Dane Vallejo

This blog was originally published by The Henry Jackson Society, 28/01/11, accessed at

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