As the War in Afghanistan winds down, a familiar debate rages Washington: America’s defense spending returned to the chopping block when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his proposed cuts to the Pentagon’s 2015 budget. Defense expenditure was already scheduled to be nearly halved from a high of 20 percent of the Federal budget during the height of the Iraq War: planned defense spending amounted to 13 percent of the 2015 budget before Secretary Hagel’s announcement. During the reveal of the plan, Hagel emphasized that the new focus of the armed forces would be on high tech and affordable solutions to crises.
Critics of the program oppose the dramatic reductions, slated to reduce active US Army personnel by nearly 20 percent to troop levels not seen since 1940. If cuts continued at this rate into 2016, the US Army would shrink from the second largest force in the world to the forth, behind India and North Korea (a country the size of the state of Pennsylvania). The Pentagon estimates this shrinkage will nearly half its operational capabilities: no longer will the Army be able to effectively fight on two fronts. But the more poignant comparison isn’t between 1940 and 2015: it’s between 1947 and today. At the dawn of the nuclear age there was a belief that land war was obsolete, and overbearing aeronaval power and strong nuclear triads would decide future conflicts. Then came Korea and Vietnam, two conflicts in which a resource hungry army struggled to hold its own.
Secretary Hagel spoke of the preeminent importance of American sea and airpower, especially during the so-called “Pivot to Asia.” He emphasized the synergy between his plan and the new air-sea battle doctrine. This is a play on the venerated air-land battle concept, which propelled coalition forces to a lightning victory in the Gulf War. While Hagel’s plan guts the Army, slashes overall training exercises by over 80 percent, and forces the USAF to ground most of its aircraft, naval procurement is relatively untouched: ships scheduled for updates are getting them; all the carriers will remain online; and the Navy will receive two destroyers, two nuclear attack subs, and one overseas basing ship every year. Currently, the Navy has more battle fleet tonnage than the next thirteen fleets combined.
Hagel’s advocacy of technological solutions to military problems is hypocritical. True, he marginally increased funding for special operations and cyber warfare units, as well as the F-35 fighter program. At various points in the plane’s controversial history, it’s nearly gone the way of the DD(X) Destroyer, The Cheyenne Attack Helicopter, the M16 Rifle Replacement, and the Dodo bird. To fund it, Hagel’s planners slashed other development projects, like the Ground Combat Vehicle program, designed to produce vehicles better prepared to keep soldiers safe against new threats like IEDs. They also cut entire platforms without suitable replacements, most notably the A-10 a rugged, robust, and survivable plane, an icon of the heyday of air-land battle in the 1980’s and 90’s—perhaps the US Army’s finest hour since the Second World War.
Most important, Hagel’s plan cuts the US Military’s best resource: people. Pay and raise freezes, a reduction to the commissary subsidy, rising healthcare and housing premiums, and forced retirement will sap the force of its best and brightest in a time when the administration promotes technological progress and doing more with less. Cuts will fall disproportionately hard on the civil affairs and psychological operations units that were the backbone of the counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, laying off the veteran planners who should be reflecting on the lessons learned after a hard decade to refine strategies for the next war.
Army Secretary McHugh and Chief of Staff Ray Odierno warned the armed services committee that “Sequestration, budget cuts, and continuing fiscal uncertainty have placed us on the outer edge of acceptable risk for our future force.” Lawmakers must not taste the forbidden fruit and compromise our armed services: there is certainly no peace dividend to be found in our time.