As part of the budget deal passed last April, Congress formed a Super Committee to negotiate a comprehensive spending agreement by November 23 or else face automatic across-the-board cuts, much of which would come from the Department of Defense. This would have a substantial impact on our nation’s military power and even bigger ramifications on the industrial base supporting it.
This threat may be mitigated, though, if policymakers break the longstanding norm of dividing the defense budget equally between the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The Army should bear the brunt of spending cuts, as it is not well-suited for the future threats that the U.S. will confront, requires less infrastructure to maintain, and can be rebuilt relatively quickly.
The country’s future strategic direction and needs do not fit the Amy’s function. China’s power in Asia is growing rapidly — it just launched its first prototype aircraft carrier and plans to build three more by 2020 — and is already sparking a regional arms race. The U.S. must maintain its force projection capabilities to defend our interests and our allies in the region and to prevent any enemy from reaching our shores. Short of an invasion of China, the Army is simply not going to be mobilized. Given how China possess nuclear weapons, the home-field advantage, and an army that is already three times the size of our own, any planner contemplating that would make Stanley Kubrick’s General Jack D. Ripper look lucid.
The only other threat confronting the U.S. are from weapons of mass destruction and terrorist networks, neither of which require mass formations of soldiers to address. Even potential conflicts on the horizon, such as wars between Iran and Israel or Pakistan and India (or the collapse of Pakistan into civil war) do not require a large Army. The former two events would swiftly end in a nuclear exchange, especially if Iran had acquired nuclear weapons, and the latter event would be such an utter mess that no military planner would want the Army to get dragged into putting soldiers on the ground.
That isn’t to say that the Army would not be hit hard by any budget cuts. If the automatic cuts come into effect, it would be forced to discharge 140,000 soldiers and stop upgrading numerous ground vehicles and helicopters. As soldiers leave, the Army would lose some of the experience gained from 10 years of hard fighting — experience that made it the most field tested force in the world, one capable of executing even the most complicated missions under trying circumstances. Moreover, it would have a difficult time getting the money back in the future. The Army hasn’t successfully acquired a new weapon platform in 20 years. It has cancelled 22 programs, each worth billions of dollars, garnering a reputation for waste and mismanagement along the way. No one is going to keep shoveling them money.
As bad as these challenges are, they are not damaging in the long run. The Army does not require high-tech equipment outside of drone forces, and this equipment can be replaced comparatively easily. The Army may shrink in size, but it is easier and faster to train soldiers than it is to build ships and fighters.
Conversely, the Navy and Air Force are needed to deal with future threats and excessive budget cutting would threaten the industrial base needed to support them. As it currently stands, weapons manufacturers have no surge capacity to deal with wartime attrition. Unlike WWII-era military vehicles, it takes months to build a modern airplane, years to build ships, and years to grow munitions stockpiles to arm them. Any amount of high-intensity combat against a conventional opponent would destroy enough equipment that it could not be replaced for years, made worse by a rapidly-evolving wartime environment. Budget cuts would push defense contractors to disband many of their highly specialized engineering teams, whose skills are difficult to replace, and degrade their manufacturing capabilities even further. With the military’s high-tech industrial base in an already precarious situation, overzealous spending cuts on the Navy and Air Force would not only stall technological progress but also undercut our nation’s ability to sustain anything but the smallest engagement.
Policymakers should consequently use this opportunity with the Super Committee to both save money on defense and to reshape our military. We cannot afford nor do we need a military that tries to do everything equally well. If the nation funds a military focused on its naval and airpower capabilities, the military would not only be smaller, but better able to address future threats, maintain our technological advantage, and be able to survive a prolonged engagement. The Army has to lose some weight.
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