An influential national-security think tank has concluded that the nation's status as the world's superpower and the U.S. military's global presence strategy can be maintained, even with reduced budgets. Analysts at the Center for a New American Security estimated that up to $550 billion in budget reductions over the next decade could be made without compromising U.S. military dominance. But cuts beyond that amount could severely undermine military capabilities, the report said.
“We recognize that we are in the midst of a debate about how much and how far to shrink,” retired Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, a CNAS senior advisor and co-author of the study, said Oct. 7 at a panel discussion. “The bottom line is, we judge that cuts exceeding about $550 billion total over the next 10 years without making substantial changes to military pay and benefits will put our broadly successful and enduring strategy of global engagement at high risk.”
The report outlines four possible budget scenarios that the Defense Department faces, ranging from a $350 billion in cuts to more than $800 billion in potential reductions if the congressional Super Committee is unable to find $1.2 trillion in savings government wide. “Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity” is one in a series of CNAS reports addressing the impact of budget constraints on national defense.
The CNAS report outlines two cost-cutting strategies designed to focus the military to meet future challenges.
To find between $350 billion and $400 billion in savings, CNAS recommends reducing procurement of Navy littoral combat ships and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and reinvesting much of the money into existing ships and aircraft. The plan also returns both the Army and Marine Corps to end strength near their pre-9/11 levels by 2015 – about 480,000 soldiers and 175,000 marines.
To find $500 billion in savings the report recommends all those cuts, plus trimming the Navy’s carrier fleet from 11 to 10, while further reducing the Marines’ V-22 Osprey program and F-35 procurement.
That scenario, which CNAS considers the uppermost threshold before U.S. military strategy begins to suffer, relies heavily on naval, air and ground forces to fulfill the military’s global presence goals, but presents risks that are “significant but acceptable,” according to the report.
On the high end, CNAS suggests that with cuts of $800 billion or more through 2022, it is still possible to “maintain a modernized force that can conduct high-intensity warfare against adversaries that directly threaten core U.S. interests, while taking substantially greater risks in all other missions."
A slash that deep could mean the “U.S. may not be able to respond in time to prevent an adversary from seizing territory,” said Travis Sharp, also a fellow at CNAS and co-author of the report.
Gordon Adams, professor of U.S. foreign policy at American University’s School of International Service, believes that cuts to defense spending could reach $1 trillion or more over the next decade. Based on similar scenarios in recent history, Adams said the U.S. military’s strength has and will again outlast efforts to massively gut its budget post-conflicts.
“The defense budget will go down; we are in a build-down,” Adams said. “But we have been down this road three times since the end of the Korean War. Build-downs happen and we have survived them.”
Nora Bensahel, deputy director of studies at CNAS and a co-author of the report, said the Defense Department will need to shift resources based on strategic priorities. “Decreasing resources will require U.S. decision makers to prioritize key geographic regions more effectively,” Bensahel said. “The U.S. military should focus more on the western Pacific and Indian Ocean and broaden engagements there because U.S. political, economic and security interests will increasingly be affected by developments in the Asia-Pacific region.” The report ranks the Middle East and Europe as having less geographic importance.
As the geographic focus shifts, so too should the reliance on a large standing ground force, CNAS recommends. An increased emphasis on procurement and modernization of naval and air forces should take a front seat as demand for ground forces declines in tandem with troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also less risky to reduce ground forces —which could be rebuilt if necessary — than to halt production of sophisticated ships and long-range strike aircraft, Bensahel said.
The report also calls for the elimination of redundancy among the services, for greater reliance on unmanned vehicles and growing investments in research and development.