(Washington, D.C.): The Clinton Administration has dropped the second shoe on the U.S. military. First, the President tried to impose his decision to legitimize open homosexuality in the armed forces with only token consultations with military leaders. Then, on 3 February, Defense Secretary Les Aspin gave the services less than a week to come up with a further $10.8 billion in cuts in defense spending.
As before, there was in the most recent episode apparently no opportunity afforded the Joint Chiefs of Staff to comment upon the wisdom or impact of such hastily imposed and draconian cuts — cuts made all the more devastating for their coming on top of dramatic reductions effected during the Bush Administration. As before, the only discussion is supposed to be about how best to implement the President’s decision.
While the President and his new team may not want to be "bothered by the facts," there are a number of serious problems with this new pronunciamento that must be considered by responsible policy-makers:
- Woolsey’s Threat Assessment: In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, the new CIA Director James Woolsey warned that the threats the United States would face in the post-Cold War world are likely to be less predictable but potentially even more dangerous than those of the past. "We have slain a large dragon," he said, "but we now live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes, and in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of."
- The Meat-Axe Treatment: Clearly, some military capabilities are going to be more urgently required in the emerging geostrategic environment than others. And yet, the Clinton defense budget cuts follow the past practice of more or less equally distributing the reductions, with each of the three services having to take a hit of between $2.5 and 3 billion.
- Wiping Out Deployable Strategic Defenses: The Aspin plan calls for cutting roughly 40 percent ($2.5 billion) from the FY94 budget for strategic defenses. As a practical matter, such a reduction will be tantamount to killing the program, particularly if — as it has done time and again in the past — Congress proceeds to make further, substantial reductions in the SDI account. The effect will be to continue to deny the U.S. any protection against long-range missile attacks and to provide only limited theater defenses.
- Return of the "Hollow Military": The bulk of the money that will be ponied up by the services will come from the most rapid spend-out accounts, i.e., those that pay for Operations and Maintenance (O&M). These funds directly affect the readiness and morale of the armed forces. Sharp reductions in O&M funds mean less training, fewer flying and steaming hours and shortfalls in spare parts. They are particularly troublesome when they are compounded by cuts in personnel and force structure — cuts that add to the arduousness of military life for those who continue to serve and aggravate the wear-and-tear on deployed equipment.
- Attrition in the Defense Industrial Base: A further repercussion of the Clinton defense budget cuts will be to exacerbate the already far advanced liquidation of much of the industrial infrastructure needed to support a modern U.S. military. At the low levels of expenditure envisioned for research and development and procurement of weapons and related equipment, real — and relatively immutable — choke-points will be built into the nation’s future capacity to produce warfighting materiel should the need arise.
There is no evident connection between this accurate depiction of the challenges likely to face American interests — at least some of which may require military responses — and the further dismantling of the U.S. armed forces upon which President Clinton has now embarked.
This approach is all the more bizarre in light of the widespread belief that a reordering of the "roles and missions" assigned to the various elements of the armed forces is long overdue. Logically, defense budget cuts, if they are to be prudently applied, should come only after a comprehensive review of the roles and missions of the armed forces, not before. In all likelihood, such a reordering would require a redistribution not only of duties but of resources. The Congress should be a full partner in this review, which should be the subject of extensive hearings before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
The combined effect of such steps will be to hollow-out the military in a manner reminiscent of the condition the armed forces were in during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. It took years for the United States to rebuild and revitalize its military in the early 1980s, at the cost of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars. It will once again take years, and immense quantities of tax dollars, to restore U.S. power projection capabilities to the level of readiness and effectiveness demonstrated so impressively in their first post-Cold War conflict — Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
The Bottom Line
Time after time in this century, the United States has tried to cash in a "peace dividend" when an immediate threat to the nation’s security was perceived to have dissipated. Each time, the nation overdid it; too much military capability was liquidated, too fast and with too little regard for the abiding dangers and attendant necessity for strong U.S. armed forces. In the wake of these cyclical episodes, one lesson is clear: Whatever short-run savings that have been achieved have paled by comparison with the immense outlays required to compensate for such cuts and to reconstitute industrial capacity and force structure imprudently liquidated.
The American people can ill afford yet another of these benighted exercises. They will be poorly served by leaders who take them down this well-trod but wasteful — and particularly reckless — path once again.