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Leading in Austere Times?

November 12, 2012

Returning from a three-day international security conference at West Point Military Academy on The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy in an Age of Austerity, I bumped in to a few “defenders of defense”.

These “defenders of defense” (ranging from cadets, to Generals, to research fellows at the Heritage Foundation) argues that because of Obama’s re-election and his inability to stop the cavernous budget cuts on defense spending, the U.S. will become unable to tackle all of the national security threats the Pentagon faces. When asking these “defense-defenders” how Obama exactly should fix the national budget then, the reflexive response becomes, “not by taking it from defense” or, “the threat landscape is actually worse today than it was on September 11th,” or that, “cutting defense won’t fix the budget.”

These types of arguments are flawed, pointless and borderline paranoid to make. While military officers are not known for taking the easy road (as the disciplined cadets at West Point proved), the simple argument of “defending the defense for the sake of national security” is an exaggerated claim and the simple way out of the difficult budget debates. Obama’s inevitable belt-tightening actually provides a good dose of defense-discipline and will lead to more security in the long term. The defense department, whom have become accustomed to unrivaled budget growth, needs to put Obama’s re-election and uncomfortable defense cuts in perspective.

First, the U.S. military edge lies in conducting asymmetrical warfare, with cost effective technological capabilities and counterterrorist operations, not the quantity of its manpower. Obama’s trimming of the U.S.’s Armed Forces will still leave the U.S. much larger than before September 11th. Sure, shaving off $50 billion from Pentagons’ budget will pose some management challenges. However, contrary to what most defense analysts argue, these budget cuts will not diminish U.S.’s military power nor leave a vacuum of insecurity when it comes to national security. It is time for Pentagon (and Congress) to start thinking about using existing resources in order to achieve realistic objectives.

Second, with a limited defense budget, competing security objectives will have to become more precisely prioritized. The U.S.’s current threat landscape painted by Pentagon officials (particularly the recent buzz of “pivoting towards Asia”) seems to have become a PR campaign for maintaining the defense budget. Applying military solutions to non-military problems is not helpful. China for example, is not emphasizing a modern Soviet tank army on steroids. The threat of loosing the U.S.’s sphere of influence in that region will be maintained with economic and diplomatic ties. Not with more military personnel stationed in the region.

Third, over the last two years, Obama has been the loudest cheerleader for NATO’s “smart defense” strategy (another buzzword for Europe’s “pooling and sharing” of resources and capabilities). What’s “smart” about this cooperation is that it aims to minimize costs for all NATO members, including the United States. With Obama’s ability to politically push European policy makers for closer cooperation, NATO may actually have a chance to become leaner, meaner and smarter over the next four years.

Lastly, the excess spending on defense is not because of a precise and a calibrated U.S. grand strategy, but rather because the Defense Department is terrible at predicting where the next war will be. Just as the Defense Department has grown accustomed to steady budget growth since the Cold War, the U.S. public has become accustomed to sloppy military planning. These pessimistic defense-defenders must realize the dangers of spending too much time at the “all-you-can-eat-buffet”. Pentagon’s smorgasbord of emerging threats must be trimmed to just a few items on the menu. The belt is becoming tighter and it is time to suck in that excess weight. With limited resources, objectives must be limited too.

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