Military Budget Cuts: How Much Will They Change Things, Really?

After reading the transcript of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's recent speech at National Defense University, two key observations stood out.

The first was the extent to which this speech resembled other speeches made by recent Defense Secretaries, specifically by way of their containing certain key buzzwords. More often than not these buzzwords, such as "modernization," "transformation," "challenges," "opportunities" and "21st Century," serve to obfuscate rather than clarify the realities of the subject matter being discussed. In other words, it was standard Washington parlance. It was not a particularly bad speech but it did leave certain key questions (that were raised within the speech itself) unanswered.

Second was the degree to which certain claims, in this case how recent Pentagon budget cuts "could lead to fundamental change and a further prioritization of the use of our resources," appeared to be at odds with the Secretary's admonishing of America to steer clear of "the luxury of retrenchment." One would think a "fundamental change" in the use of the defense budget would signal a similar change in American foreign policy overall. Unfortunately, that is not the case. 

This is because the claim that fundamental change is coming to American defense and foreign policy is a myth. It is being used to provide political cover for an administration with a firmly interventionist foreign policy.

Now granted, the interventionist impulse in this administration is less bellicose than that which preceded it. Nevertheless, it remains committed to a version of "global leadership" that looks a lot like old fashioned "global hegemony."

Listed below are three key claims that are often made to perpetuate the overall myth that substantive change of any kind to American defense policy is coming. We have heard this line before, and we know it isn't true.

Myth #1: U.S. will realign its defense obligations to better reflect its defense budget. 

Not likely. Such realignment would have to include a serious re-evaluation of outdated commitments to wealthy allies such as South Korea, Japan, and perhaps even NATO. There is no evidence to suggest the Obama administration has ever seriously considered this option.

The same is true for other commitments to less powerful allies such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Taiwan, and the Philippines. Unlike the first set, these commitments are more likely to pull the U.S. into dangerous and costly conflicts (with Iran and China respectively) that would not serve any discernible national interest. 

Myth #2: Going forward, U.S. defense policy will emphasize "small wars" which will be less costly, conducted mainly through technology, and will result in minimal troop casualties.

Three words: Pivot to Asia. Another three words: air-sea concept. While the first represents a geo-strategic focus by the Obama Administration away from the Middle East and towards East Asia, the later represents a conventional defense strategy. In other words expensive conventional conflicts, particularly of the air (manned fighter aircraft) and sea-based (submarines, ships, aircraft carriers) variety, are here to stay. Contrary to what they say about the pivot, it really is "all about (containing) China." Simply put, it will take more than the threat of drones and cyber-weapons to protect Taiwan from China or to persuade China to peacefully resolve its various maritime disputes with its neighbors in the East and South China Seas.        

Myth #3: "Small wars" are less expensive.

Even if U.S. defense policy was focused on small wars (which it is most certainly not), the above claim is not necessarily accurate. Initial interventions in Afghanistan after 9/11 (2001-2002) could serve as a model against Al-Qaeda-like non-state actors in failed states. Where these interventions go awry is when policymakers fail to either define a clear military objective or appreciate the political consequences such an intervention can bring. Such was the case in Afghanistan from about 2004 to the present day. Another example is the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya in 2011. While inexpensive militarily, this intervention has incurred incredible political costs that can be felt throughout North Africa.

Less visible, but by no means less important, costs of small wars have also included the trampling of civil liberties and the rule of law. Small war tactics are particularly threatening because the costs incurred are real but not easily quantified.