By Gordon Adams and Matthew Leatherman

Of all of this year's seismic shifts in the deficit and debt debate, putting defense budgets on the table is perhaps the most significant. The President's deficit commission, reinforced by the Bipartisan Policy Center's Rivlin-Domenici panel, added it to the conversation. And newly-ascendant Republicans, supported by many outside conservatives, have affirmed that fiscal discipline must include the defense budget.

The Department of Defense has not yet acknowledged this shift. Rather, Defense Secretary Robert Gates blasted the President's deficit commission report as "math, not strategy." This is an ironic judgment since the Pentagon itself has neglected strategic trade-offs for the past decade and expanded its budgets at will.

Better disciplined budgeting will require the U.S. to acknowledge that we are more secure today than at any point since 1945. Al Qaeda poses a challenge that is far more sensational than it is existential, while both a strategic nuclear exchange and major land combat are unlikely. Moreover, U.S. dominance in virtually every domain of warfare is extraordinary. Indeed, the Pentagon spends more on just research today than any other country does on their entire armed force.

Even with level or declining future budgets -- now roughly $700 billion, the highest since 1947 -- the U.S. military would be the only one able to patrol the seas globally, carry out long-range air strike operations, and deploy ground forces worldwide. It still would be the only military with global transportation, logistics, communications, and intelligence capabilities. And our Special Forces alone are and would remain larger than the entire militaries of two-thirds of the countries in the world.

Recognizing the unique security we enjoy, fiscal responsibility is needed now more than ever. Secretary Gates is leading an effort to shift $100 billion over five years from overhead to warfighting, but this will not be sufficient. Defense spending must actually fall. This will require a decision to prioritize defense missions that are probable, consequential, achievable, and appropriate, to calculate acceptable levels of risk, and to tailor the force and its budget to match.

Dismantling the al Qaeda network and proactively dealing with cybersecurity should be our top military priorities. Large-scale conventional combat, conventional deterrence, and sea lane patrol also are important, but our challenges in these areas are less severe and our capabilities already are more than adequate to address them. Most importantly, counterinsurgency and nation-building should decline significantly in priority after our forces depart Iraq and Afghanistan.

Setting such mission priorities would do what the February Quadrennial Defense Review failed to do: constrain the defense budget to strategy and priority missions and deliberately manage risk. It would also demand tough choices on personnel and investment, the areas that Secretary Gates has said he most wants to protect.

The military has grown by 92,000 ground forces over the past decade in order to conduct long counterinsurgency and nation-building campaigns, part of what Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey calls the "era of persistent conflict." Persistent conflict is unlikely because the U.S. can choose and always has chosen the conflicts in which it will engage. The ground force growth should gradually be reversed. In addition, our European and Asian allies are sufficiently secure to permit a drawdown of 80,000 US forces that are permanently stationed overseas. This includes South Korea, whose military now is ample to deal with its North Korean adversary.

Administratively, another 100,000 positions can be eliminated from the half-million service-members that the Pentagon classifies as serving in overhead positions. The decision to limit the military's missions means that they will not need to be replaced by civilians or contractors. Each of these personnel cuts should generate a corresponding reduction in training and equipment costs, providing additional savings.

Mission prioritization and management discipline should also govern investment choices. The U.S. still is buying programs designed for Cold War-style major conventional conflict. We can lower that investment by continuing our current fighter jet programs rather than building a new F-35 line; by slowing the rate at which we buy new Virginia-class attack submarines; by divesting from missile defenses that are either unwanted or unworkable; and by canceling the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle designed for amphibious assaults last executed in the Korean War. Only conflict with China or Russia would warrant these costs. Neither is at all likely and, it would take decades for either state to match the U.S.' current conventional superiority.

Choosing mission priorities, managing efficiently, and budgeting accordingly can contribute roughly $1 trillion to deficit reduction by 2020 while making the Pentagon more fiscally responsible and maintaining -- even sharpening -- the point of the spear of the world's most superior military. Rarely has this task been more urgent. Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently concluded that "the single-biggest threat to our national security is our debt." He is right, and now is the time to address it. U.S. national security permits us to spend less on defense, and our fiscal circumstances require it.


Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011

Dr. Gordon Adams is a Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service and Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center. Matthew Leatherman is Research Associate at the Stimson Center and a regular contributor to its blog, The Will and the Wallet.


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