It stood there in dramatic isolation, like the black obelisk suddenly appearing from the sky in the film 2001: President Barack Obama's proposal to reshape U.S. military strategy while cutting some half-trillion dollars from the Defense Department budget over the next 10 years.
The bipartisan deficit-reduction commission's failure last month to arrive at a package will expose the Pentagon budget to another $450 billion in mandated cuts over the same period, unless amended or reversed by the Congress early in 2013.
Obama’s proposed cuts, of and by themselves, set off a storm of protest among Republican presidential candidates and senior congressional leaders concerned with defense.
But the changing defense strategy for a leaner military, too, will create months of campaign and congressional debate, once its implications are fully digested. One local member of Congress who reacted quickly, Adam Smith, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, endorsed the proposal strongly.
Everyone knew cuts would be proposed. Federal debt is at $15 trillion, and mounting, and attempts to credibly reduce it will require Pentagon spending reductions. It was surprising, though, that the proposal was made in isolation and not as part of a more general presentation on government-wide cuts — notably including adjustments in Social Security and Medicare spending.
With or without being placed in a larger budget context, the proposal demands attention.
First, the money. It is unpleasant but necessary to remind ourselves that the United States has slipped into dangerous debt territory. In 2012, U.S. government borrowing, to finance current deficits and existing debt, will amount to 27 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP). That compares to 24 percent and 19 percent, respectively, for financially beleaguered Greece and Ireland.
Our gross debt is not yet equal to that of those countries or to the debt of Italy, Spain, and Portugal as a percentage of GDP. But we are gaining on them. Before long, the U.S. no longer will be seen as a "safe haven" for international money but as a country whose bonds should be avoided.
These debt levels reflect the huge changes that have taken place in our and major western European countries. Goverment spending, especially on social programs, has risen greatly in recent decades. The European welfare state expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, the American safety net in the 1960s and 1970s as Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamp spending kicked in. One telling number: Just before President Kennedy's inaugural, in 1960, 26 percent of our federal spending consisted of payments to individuals. In 2010, it was 66 percent.
Defense spending is another matter, moving in another direction yet still a heavy burden. During the Cold War period about 50 percent of our federal budget, and 10 percent of our national income, routinely went to the Pentagon. By 2010, the percentages were 20 percent of federal spending and 5 percent of national income. Some 20 years ago the Army had 172 combat battalions, the Navy 546 ships, and the Air Force 4,355 fighter craft. Today, there are 100 Army battalions, 288 ships, and 1,990 air fighters. Yet today the U.S. military budget remains the largest in the world, despite China's larger troop levels and aggressive ground, sea, and air buildup.
Now, even more important, the strategy. We have withdrawn our troops from Iraq, plan a withdrawal from Afghanistan in three years, and are in a position to reassess our troop levels in Western Europe, where the threat of a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion no longer exists. The new proposal thus calls for force reductions both for the Army and Marine Corps. It abandons the "two war" concept in which our military was prepared to fight two major wars simultaneously. It places new emphasis on air and sea power and efforts to counter Iranian and Chinese attempts to drive the American presence and influence from their regions.
It would abandon so-called "nation building" efforts on the ground in favor of special operations and technological responses to insurgent and other challenges offshore. Our nuclear deterrent would be maintained. Reserve and National Guard forces obviously would need to be strengthened and ready in the event of unexpected emergencies.
Barring such unforeseen emergencies, the proposal appears rational. Yet, over many decades, there have been drawdowns followed by buildups as such emergencies have materialized, in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, most notably.
In 1961, during the so-called Berlin Crisis (when the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall) President John F. Kennedy was forced to mobilize on short notice 150,000 Army Reservists, myself among them, in what turned out to be a confused fire drill in its execution. There will be anxiety now that the proposed shift, and reductions in ground forces, would come at at a time when almost any surprise could befall us in the Middle East, Persian Gulf, or northeast Asia.
Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a former House budget chairman, knows national security and he knows the budget. He is only the most recent of successive U.S. defense secretaries, including notably Donald Rumsfeld and Bob Gates, who have wanted not only to trim spending but to reorder priorities. All also have wanted to eliminate duplicative weapons systems — Gates eliminated the F-22 Stealth fighter — and they have tried to get a handle on ever-rising personnel costs associated with current force levels.
The Defense budget, as other parts of the federal budget, gets defended generally and on specifics by the services, defense contractors, and lawmakers representing districts with defense installations and industries. Any senior commander, of any of the services, will tell you that you that his service's annual budget proposal asks for more than it needs simply because, at the end of the process, the leaders fears losing their share of the pie to rival services or to Office of Management and Budget green eyeshaders.
The coming debate, unfortunately, will come during a national-election year, in a time of international uncertainty, and with defense policy being considered in isolation rather than as part of overall federal spending. I personally consider the main outlines of the Obama proposal to be realistic. But another 9/11, or a surprise in any of several trouble spots, could put the whole exercise on hold until 2013.