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Tightening the Pentagon's Belt

Interviewee: Richard K. Betts, Adjunct Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Jonathan Masters, Associate Staff Writer, CFR.org
July 28, 2011

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As the fiscal policy debate continues in Washington, an increasing number of lawmakers are eager to make significant reductions in defense spending (WSJ). In April 2011, President Obama proposed $400 billion worth of cuts to the Pentagon to be spread over twelve years— bringing an end to thirteen years of rising baseline budgets—but it remains to be seen whether substantial reductions will be a major part of a bipartisan deficit reduction deal. The Defense Department is conducting a review of military missions and capabilities designed to help inform the president's decisions about specific cuts. Some legislators have proposed defense cuts (Reuters) approaching $1 trillion. CFR's national security expert Richard Betts says reductions should play "a major role," but notes that while the political window may be open for such cuts, the question of "which cuts" remains to be answered. He suggests the United States should pursue a "mobilization strategy" that reflects a reduced threat environment and limits the production of expensive, state-of-the-art equipment.

How big a role should defense cuts play in the current negotiations about debt and deficits?

A major role, because everyone agrees that there have to be major expenditure cuts in general, even though they can't bring themselves to agree on what. It's logical that defense is going to be one of the paths of least resistance, because few people want to cut the expensive entitlement programs—social security and Medicare. Those programs, plus the defense budget, are where most of the money is being spent. And in the discretionary budget—the levels of spending that are not mandated as a matter of law—the defense budget is a major portion.

The problem is that the Republicans want to make most of the spending cuts in the discretionary budget. So they are painting themselves into a corner, in that it is impossible to save a lot of money in a discretionary budget without significant cuts in defense. The Democrats are less inclined ideologically to keep defense spending high. That suggests there will be an emerging coalition between Republican budget cutters and Democrats who want to preserve the entitlement programs.

You've written previously on the need for the United States to pursue "strategic solvency." Can you elaborate on that term and talk about what that would mean for today's military?

That was a term used by [late] James Chace, [former managing editor of Foreign Affairs]. It essentially refers to bringing into balance military commitment, capabilities, resources, and strategy, since it is very easy for an ambitious superpower to take on more responsibilities than it finds itself able to pay for or to field forces for. It essentially argues that if commitments have to be increased because of the world situation, then so do resources; and conversely if our economic belts have to be tightened, then commitments need to be trimmed to bring those two factors into balance. Sometimes changes in strategy could find a way to keep level of commitments high with a lower level of resources, but that's usually a trickier game.

So given the fiscal crisis and likely future spending cuts, what does the United States practicing "strategic solvency" mean to the future national security strategy? What would be the priorities?

The United States should move towards more of a "mobilization strategy"- which means that we should take advantage of the reduced threat to our security that came with the end of the Cold War, and have a more modest view of the need to intervene abroad as long as direct threats to our national security are limited. We should orient our military planning and organization to what might be called a "readiness to get ready," that is to focus on training, research and development, organizational structures and their maintenance, and all of the infrastructure for military power that can be used as a base for rapid buildup when conditions change and the world situation deteriorates.

This would be more like a return to the historic norm for the United States that preceded World War II. But Americans don't remember that because World War II was followed by the Cold War, and virtually no one alive today remembers the United States not having a huge standing military being very heavily involved in operations abroad. But that would be my solution. A betting man would probably say that: "We're not going to do that, we're going to muddle through and cut this and that here and there and have a somewhat less coherent strategy," which might not be at all bad if it's done in not a completely erratic way. But that outcome would not be the ideal solution.

Given, let's say, a hypothetical threat from China in the future, how would this mobilization strategy play out?

In principle, it means we would focus our planning on maintaining a strong, professional cadre of military officers who are well-trained and ready to train others if forces need to expand in the future. It would mean concentrating on keeping all the infrastructure for producing more, especially naval and air power, in the event that competition with China heats up. It would emphasize research and development to keep our technological edge as much as possible, but without necessarily producing new fancy weapons in large numbers until the international situation gets bad and it looks like we might need them.

The window is open for significant cuts in the defense budget, but exactly how that is translated into particular programs that are cut is hard to predict.

How powerful do you see the so-called military industrial complex and the defense lobby in pushing military spending? Is there a need to break that inertia or is this not a huge concern?

The complex is influential and does pump up spending sometimes in unnecessary ways - just as various interest groups do in all sorts of domestic programs. What could be done to change that is not completely clear, because while everyone in Congress may agree that we need to be frugal and cut unnecessary programs, they never translate that into cutting programs of their constituents. In the past, they have dealt with this problem and other issues in creative ways, such as the commission on base closing, which enabled Congress to vote for base closures without having to take responsibility for closures in their own districts. It's hard to see exactly how a nifty solution like that might work on procurement programs of other expensive items of the defense budget. But as the pressure mounts, Congress might get more inventive in finding ways to discipline itself.

Are there items that should not be on the chopping block or should everything be on the table?

Everything should be on the table, but that does not mean that everything on the table is going to go. It means that both different strategic conceptions and interest groups will have to interact and make bargains that may not be anybody's idea of a rational strategy, but together as a set of compromises avoid too many problems in our capabilities or expenditures.

Are there areas in the Pentagon that you would target immediately for cuts or as particularly wasteful?

[S]oft power is not something easily wielded as an instrument of policy. If it exists, it exists more in the minds of people who observe what happens in the United States from day to day.

We need to restrain the incentives to produce significant numbers of state-of-the-art combat aircraft, ships, and major weapons systems. We should produce enough of each new model that we can experiment with them, learn from them, and be ready to produce them in a larger numbers if we need to. But the idea that we need numerous squadrons or fleets or battalions of every new weapons system that is developed is one we need to reign in.

Is the political window open for these types of cuts?

The window is open for significant cuts in the defense budget, but exactly how that is translated into particular programs that are cut is hard to predict. The old line about not wanting to see how sausage is made is probably going to apply here. It's going to be a bargaining process.

Does there need to be a cultural change in the way Americans think about U.S. power, not only in Washington, but also in the minds of an average American voter?

In principle, it's not a cultural issue so much as it is a simple policy question about how ambitious American foreign policy should be and how much we insist on being able to do in the near term with military force. In principle, you ought to be able to decide that on the basis of a conscious balancing of costs and benefits. On the other hand, part of our problem is the American sense of mission to reform the world that has led to very ambitious plans for military involvement in problems abroad that would be nice to solve, but maybe are not ones that the United States necessarily needs to solve.

So yes, we may need a change in that sort, but it's more of a change in the thinking of our policy elites than it is of Americans in general. In some ways, average voters have been more sensible about this question than foreign policy elites, since in many polls in times when problems of this sort arise, there's great public receptivity to more restraint, and more of an orientation to looking out for American interests per say as distinct from the interests of other countries and people who we want to help abroad. In times like this, the line "America come home" becomes less of a sort of fringe point of view than something closer to the mainstream.

With all of these potential future cuts, do you see this as a call for an expanded role for U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid, and the use of soft power?

Not really, because our diplomacy should have been working up to capacity all along. It's not obvious that there are unexploited options for diplomacy that we haven't taken just because we have relied so heavily on military power. We should want diplomacy to be as active and inventive and effective as it can be, but I doubt there is some sort of new impetus that we could realistically expect diplomacy to provide. And foreign aid is not going to be easy to increase in a time of budgetary stringency.

Also, soft power is not something easily wielded as an instrument of policy. If it exists, it exists more in the minds of people who observe what happens in the United States from day to day. Also, I think we overestimate our soft power. Americans understandably like to think of themselves as a model for the world, as a society that other societies want to be like. To some extent, this is true, but we tend to exaggerate the extent to which our soft power really shapes others' policies.

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