Anybody who still harbored illusions that the defense budget would not be the bill payer for the Obama administration’s domestic policy priorities had those shattered by Obama’s speech before Congress Tuesday night. Obama laid out his top priorities: repairing the economy, reducing the deficit, and increasing funding for education, health care and energy.
Obama did reference defense, promising to “reform” the defense budget and cut costly weapons systems. In his entire hour-long speech Obama mentioned the word “terrorist” or “terrorism” three times, one of which doesn’t count because he was referring to closing Guantanamo when he said it. And, of course, he promised to end the Iraq war.
In sum, it was a stark shift in priorities from those of the Bush administration that launched a dramatic military buildup following the 9-11 attacks that saw defense budgets climb about 62 percent in real terms from 2000. Those days are clearly over. The talk now is about restoring a sense of "balance" to U.S. strategy.
Our military posture is “insolvent,” says noted military analyst Frank Hoffman, and the Obama administration can forget about trying to implement any sweeping grand strategy as the new national security team’s number one priority is to get our overstretched military out of the red, “metaphorically, strategically and fiscally.” I talked to Hoffman at a recent defense conference in Washington where he presented his plan to re-balance the military. He said U.S. defense and foreign policy fails the “Lippman Solvency Test.” Walter Lippman once said: "Foreign policy consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's commitments and the nation's power."
How to restore solvency to the military? Hoffman makes the following recommendations:
• Adopt a less assertive and less unilateralist foreign policy, work through and with partners.
• Reduce forward deployed forces as much as possible, including further drawdowns in Europe and Korea.
• Cut missile defense, emphasize research and testing; also cut nuclear warheads, which would lead to savings in submarines and elsewhere.
• Build no more than 1,600 F-35 JSF; more funding for unmanned long-range strike.
• Cut aerial drones out of the Army’s FCS program and reshape it to emphasize force protection.
• Navy should drop to 9 carriers,
• Ground forces should be resized and the need to maintain a larger occupation army in Iraq should not be the model. Better force size: Army=515,000; Marines 185,000.
Rebuilding strategic solvency will inevitably require Pentagon belt-tightening. Hoffman says a smaller defense budget, on the order of $450 billion a year, is more sensible and sustainable. That's obivously much less than the $533 billion requested by the Obama administration for 2010. Hoffman says we're in the early stages of the fiscal and economic crisis and things will worsen as entitlements and other mandatory spending increase pressures on the federal budget, and defense spending will have to fall further. Defense budgets of the size the Obama administration proposes are not sustainable long term.
Additional investments must be made in irregular warfare capabilities, specifically, creating a highly skilled and trained advisory cadre. The solution to the threat posed by "hybrid" enemies lies in better training and force adaptation, not a more costly tool box. Highly specialized, exotic, over-tooled weapons and forces are out. Flexibility and weapons that are easily configured to fight at the high-end the low-end and everything in between will be at a premium.