Obama's Missed Opportunity on Defense

The Obama administration's defense strategy review, unveiled at the Pentagon on January 6, is under attack. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has argued that the plan is naive and dangerous, while numerous independent experts have rightly criticized the plan for being too timid in its pursuit of Pentagon spending reductions. Largely missing from the discussion is the fact that key components of the Obama strategy, if faithfully pursued, could support reductions in planned defense spending far greater than anything currently envisioned by the administration.

There is much to criticize in the Pentagon's new strategy -- most notably its unwillingness to sharply curtail the number of missions expected of our armed forces. But there are positive elements of the administration's proposed approach as well. These include its call for an end to long-term, large-scale nation building efforts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan; its acknowledgment that our economic strength is the essential foundation of our national security; its recognition that diplomacy and development can be as or more important than military approaches in dealing with the most urgent threats we face; its pledge to stop funding outmoded weapons programs that don't address current and future threats; and its suggestion that we may be able to sustain nuclear deterrence with a smaller nuclear arsenal than we currently possess. Taken together, these proposals imply significant reductions in Pentagon spending.

For example, in a world in which the United States no longer intends to wage large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns or engage in wars of occupation, U.S. military forces could easily be reduced by 200,000 to 250,000 troops, more than double the reductions being discussed by the Obama national security team. A less interventionist policy would also allow for a reduction in the hundreds of U.S. overseas bases and a scaling back of the number of aircraft carriers in the U.S. fleet.

Accepting the fact that we can protect the United States from nuclear attack with a nuclear arsenal considerably smaller than the one we now possess would allow the administration to discard plans for building costly new nuclear bombers, nuclear submarines, and nuclear weapons facilities.

Reshaping the U.S. defense apparatus to deal with the most relevant threats we face -- from nuclear proliferation to cyber-attacks -- would allow for cuts in old-style systems. First on the list should be the massive F-35 aircraft program, which is premised on a world of air-to-air combat by rival pilots. This sort of warfare is less and less likely to occur in an era of armed drones and increasingly accurate long-range missiles. If the need arises, air combat missions can be met with upgraded versions of current aircraft like the F-15, F-16 and F-18 at a fraction of the cost of building new F-35s.

In addition, putting priority on getting our fiscal and economic house in order should drive us to refrain from a military-led approach to the rise of China, allowing for corresponding reductions in the size of our Air Force and Navy. Even after reductions well in excess of what the Pentagon is currently proposing, U.S. military outlays would be three to four times what China is spending. If we militarize our Asia policy in service of a misguided assessment of the Chinese threat, we will fall behind Beijing in the race that matters the most -- the race to develop a sustainable strategy for economic growth.

The kinds of changes outlined above would allow the Obama administration to put forward proposals to trim at least twice as much from the Pentagon's bloated spending plans as they are currently contemplating -- in the range of $1 trillion over 10 years. That would allow the administration to achieve savings similar to those that would be imposed if automatic across-the-board cuts required by last year's budget law -- a process known as sequestration -- were to take effect. If the Pentagon puts forward a cogent plan for phasing in the cuts rather than having to do so in the less orderly fashion required by sequestration, both our security and our economy would be better served.

If the Obama administration embraces the most forward-looking parts of its own defense strategy, we can have a defense posture that is far more effective and affordable than the one that is currently in place. It's time to stop nibbling at the edges of the problem and promote real reform -- a reform that could be implemented if the administration were to take its own best rhetoric to heart.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books).