After a decade marked by two long wars, massive increases in military spending, and a ballooning deficit, it is no surprise that the Obama administration plans a $450 billion Pentagon budget reduction over the next decade, equal to approximately 5% of its budget. However, as a result of the automatic cuts that may arise from a congressional failure to reach a timely agreement on the amount to be cut, the reduction could actually reach $1 trillion, or approximately 12% of the military's budget.
While the size, manner, and effect of these cuts is difficult to ascertain at this juncture, there can be little doubt that there will be significant reductions to the US defense budget over the coming decade. The US military will see a relative decline in strength as emerging powers -- most notably China and India -- continue to build up their militaries. An absolute decline in the defense budget, combined with a relative decline in comparative military strength vis-à-vis some emerging powers, will force the US to revaluate its military posture.
There is considerable debate about how much these defense cuts will impact the military's operating capability. Congressional hawks see almost any cut as potentially debilitating. President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta believe that the US military is capable of managing a 5% budget reduction, but the administration believes that a 12% cut could prove ruinous. Military doves point out that the US armed forces remain the world's premier fighting force, despite having had its budget slashed by a third in the 1990s. Indeed, the American military budget already exceeds the combined military budgets of the world. While based on current economic forecasts US military spending is scheduled to decrease as a percentage of GDP over the coming decade, in reality, defense spending will actually increase over the next decade -- the so-called 'cuts' are merely reductions in the amount of growth in defense spending.
Successive US presidents have used the military in an ad hoc manner -- at times being used to confront rogue states or protect civilians, while at other times hunting down terrorists and providing humanitarian aid. Simply put, American military posture lacked a dominant theme. At the same time, one could argue that the role of a military is by definition multifaceted, and that it is in its interest to be diverse enough to be able to perform many different tasks at one time. The absence of a single enemy (since the collapse of the former Soviet Union) meant that by definition the US military became a more flexible -- and capable -- fighting force.
The American armed forces will undoubtedly continue to perform a hodgepodge of missions in the current decade, however it will probably assume a more focused organizational posture as a result of its declining size and strength. Although we cannot predict with precision what this new military posture will look like, we already know that it will involve a reorientation away from Europe and toward Asia. As many defense analysts have advocated, troops will be pulled out of Europe and deployed to other areas of the world -- especially Asia. The downside risks to this reorientation are minimal given that the threats facing Europe are moderate in scale and few in number, while Asia faces a variety of challenges from an emergent China. Moreover, Europe is more than capable of meeting the dangers it faces without 150,000 American troops on the ground. There is no good reason why it must remain psychologically dependent on a Cold War security blanket provided by the US.
Due to its smaller global footprint, the new American military posture will also lean more heavily on its allies than it has in the past. In some cases, its allies lead major military operations, as NATO did in Libya. In the past the US military typically constituted more than 60% of the forces in a NATO coalition. However, it flew only 20 to 30 percent of the sorties in Libya. In the near and medium-term, the US military may act less like a cop walking the beat and more like a SWAT team that responds to emergencies. In areas with strong regional partners, the US will operate less prominently, assuming de jure leadership only under the most challenging circumstances. America will increasingly push for its allies to upgrade their armed forces, will call for more integration of the European militaries, and urge Japan to increase its military spending. At the same time, the US will continue to build its military relations with India, as a natural counter-weight to China, and a de facto stabilizing force in South Asia.
Many believe that the US should move away from interventionism, even among some military hawks. One view gaining increasing acceptance among national security interventionists holds that if problems are resolved while they are small, they will not grow large enough to warrant a massive military investment. The most cited example here is Afghanistan, which was largely ignored by the US during much of the past 40 years. Many believe that if the US had focused a bit more of its attention earlier on, it might have prevented Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda. In areas without a strong regional American ally, the US may utilize small numbers of aid workers, diplomats, intelligence professionals, and specialized military personnel to conduct "preventative maintenance" in zones of instability. It is hoped that small interventions like this can prevent a country or region from descending into chaos, thereby preventing the need for a larger and more intensive military operation.
The most surprising feature of America's emerging military posture is that it will, in some respects, come to resemble the controversial military philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld. In the early years of the Bush administration, Mr. Rumsfeld championed a smaller military force that would rely heavily on air power and special operations troops. This strategy was later ridiculed, as the Afghan and Iraq wars demanded a troop-heavy counterinsurgency strategy. But some aspects of Mr. Rumsfeld's philosophy may yet be vindicated. America's new military posture, as outlined by the Obama administration, will seek to avoid prolonged occupations and increasingly rely on units and systems that deliver more bang for the buck. This means that special operations troops, UAVs, and cyber warfare will all play an increasingly important role in the years ahead. Indeed, the covert war being waged in Iran -- involving computer viruses, stealth UAVs, and assassinations -- represents the new emerging face of warfare.
Mr. Panetta has already acknowledged that the US military will no longer be designed to fight two major wars at once. To many defense analysts, this seems less important, as the US may only need to be prepared to fight one major ground conflict -- in Korea. From this perspective, the likelihood of a major ground conflict breaking out in another area of the world seems rather low -- at least at this time -- even though the Middle East appears to be becoming more unstable every day. It therefore seems naïve to think that another major conflict involving ground forces could not occur in the region in the medium or long-term.
The second danger of the emerging US military force structure may be that it seems designed to fight the wars the US wants to fight -- not the wars it may be forced to fight. It is tempting to believe that a smaller and less expensive force can accomplish just as much as a larger force. The US military purposely moved away from troop heavy counterinsurgencies after the Vietnam War. However, this did not prevent the US from fighting counterinsurgencies again in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The third problem with the Pentagon's redesign is that many of America's allies may not be willing to pick up the slack caused by a reduced global American military presence. Given Europe's circumstances, it will clearly not be upgrading or integrating its military any time soon, and it has at time proven incapable or unwilling to address problems in its own backyard (i.e. Kosovo). Moreover, Japan has been a pacifist country for the past 60 years and will be reluctant to engage in hearty military operations. In addition, the US does not yet have enough confidence in emerging powers to simply hand off regional responsibility. This lack of allied cooperation may create a perceived security vacuum that some American policy makers will, rightly or wrongly, feel a need to fill.
As the US cuts back its armed forces, other nations will upgrade theirs, which will require the US to constantly reevaluate its global military posture. The Pentagon will by definition have to reorient itself and rely increasingly on regional allies to maintain stability acceptable to the US. The future US military will be a smaller and highly trained force, armed with high technology, and wary of large ground operations. The question is whether future US leaders will be able to resist the temptation to fall back on America's traditional method of addressing global threats and conflicts, by deploying US forces. In an age where national economies and budgets are strained to the breaking point, and where electorates have less patience for military adventurism, the answer is that future US presidents and Congressional members will need to adjust their world view to the new normal.
*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions (CRS), a cross-border risk advisory firm based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of Managing Country Risk (March 2012). Michael Doyle is a research analyst with CRS.