There are two ways to react to President Obama's latest round of defense spending cuts. One is emotional but somewhat justified. The second is to analyze of Obama's plans critically to reveal a transformation of our military that is as dangerous as Obama's transformation of our economy.
Since Obama appeared with Defense Secretary Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey in the Pentagon press room last Thursday, many commentators have written and railed at length on radio and television about how these cuts will hollow our forces' readiness to fight.
That reaction is understandable but it isn't on more solid ground than Obama's plan, because neither the plan nor the common reaction deals with the real dangers our nation faces.
Under former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama imposed about $400 billion in defense spending cuts by his "Queen of Hearts" method of budgeting for defense: verdict first, trial after. They ended, for example, production of key weapon systems such as the F-22 fighter, the C-17 transport aircraft, and the DDG-1000 Zumwalt destroyer.
Gates imposed those cuts before the Quadrennial Defense Review -- "QDR" in the inevitable acronym -- was performed. The QDR was supposed to be the congressionally mandated analysis of the threats the Pentagon is expected to deal with and from which its budget is supposed to be derived. But Gates and his team wrote the post-cuts QDR to justify the cuts rather than to justify a budget that answered the threats.
In April of last year, Obama praised Gates's first round of cuts and then ordered a review of defense spending to double them. Last week's announced plan was the result of that review. It repeated the Queen of Hearts exercise and took it one step further. It took the planned smaller budget, fashioned our military's future around it, and then made big promises that cannot possibly be kept.
The plan announced by Obama and Panetta plans a revision of our force structure:
• To refocus our military to meet the rise of China's military force by "rebalancing" toward the Asia-Pacific region.
• To be able to win one conflict and fight another to a stalemate.
• To provide standing forces, for a limited time, to engage in new nation-building operations.
• To meet every other challenge in space, cyberwar, and other fields of unconventional operations.
So if we have to fight China, Israel has to deal with Iran on its own, Europe can deal with Russia, and the Middle East can stew in its own juices. And stalemate is now a strategy.
But even that's a very tall order for a force that may be cut by as much as $1 trillion in spending over the next ten years.
Let's get that bogeyman out of the way first. Just because a Pentagon budget is $700 billion a year doesn't mean that it will be more effective at deterring or defeating the threats than a threat-based $350 billion a year force might be. The unanswered questions are what capabilities do we need and what will it cost to have them?
And there's the rub. Neither the Pentagon nor, as far as I can determine, the intelligence community has done the essential analysis to determine what we need our military to do. Obama's plan mentions things such as missile defense, cyberwar, and space operations as targets for investment, but it also plans to pour money into strengthening the failed NATO alliance and other such boondoggles. There's not enough money to go around.
Our NATO allies haven't invested in their own defense since the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the euro about to slip on Greece and crash down on Italy, that trend isn't going to be reversed in the foreseeable future. Obama didn't demand that they do more for themselves, and under his plan we will not be able to do more from them without robbing money from funds essential to performing other plans Obama made. Obama knows that and, to be sure, Vlad Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hu Jintao know it as well.
So with all the broad promises, where's the leaner budget to be spent, and how do we know that it won't be spent unwisely?
For example, Obama's new-found dedication to nation-building is limited by its own statement that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations." You can't have it both ways. George Bush's biggest mistake since 9/11 was to pour too much blood and treasure into nation-building and it failed comprehensively despite the enormous investment. Planning to do less means you will accomplish less.
Does anyone believe that Obama will allow further investment in missile defense or the other capabilities we need to thwart China's rise? I don't believe he will, and everything he has done to date reinforces that belief.
China is investing unknown billions in an area-denial force. Its ships and aircraft aren't being designed to defeat the U.S. Navy, but only to deny it the ability to intervene successfully in Chinese operations in the Pacific region. Obama's plan says he will invest in everything we need to counter the area-denial strategy. But the categories of weapon systems Obama plans to use to respond to China -- missile defense, a new stealth bomber, undersea capabilities and space-based capabilities -- are among the most expensive weapons we ever buy. (A single spy satellite can cost over $1 billion.) With the cuts already in place, and more to come, we simply won't be able to spend enough to do what Obama falsely promises.
The falsity of Obama's promises is clear from any serious review of his plan. He's making plans he knows will not -- and cannot -- be implemented. Based on his transformation of our economy into a government-run enterprise, Obama is -- not coincidentally -- making it financially impossible for our military and intelligence services to do what they will have to do even under his reduced vision of U.S. military power.
There probably are ways to restructure the Pentagon budget. There could be a much less expensive force that would be more capable and effective in deterring and defeating aggression than the current $700 billion a year force. But, right now, nobody knows what it would look like.
Back in the good old days (1981-1988) we had something called "defense guidance," which was the basis for something else called the "POM." The annual defense guidance process combined the best thinkers from the intelligence community and the military. They'd sit down and -- one by one -- assess our adversaries' intentions and capabilities.
Once that assessment was done, they would analyze what we needed to have in the military tool box to deter or defeat the threats and compare it to what we already had or we'd already planned. They would propose to retire outdated weapons, resize and reshape our forces, and then come up with an outline of what we needed to pay for and invest in to ensure the threats were answered. That was the defense guidance for the year.
At that point, the Pentagon's bean counters would turn it into the "program objective memorandum" -- the sacred "POM" -- from which the Pentagon's budget would be derived. It sounds simple, but defense guidance was an enormously complex intellectual exercise.
Until we perform that process again, we can't know what our military forces need to be able to do to answer the many threats we face. Obama is leading us down a blind alley, and the only certainty is that what we will have -- in ten or twenty years -- won't be what we need.
That gap in capabilities will, inevitably, be filled. Either with a properly-designed force, or with the bodies of those serving in one that was designed to fit a budget cut rather than the threats.