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New US president will face era of shrinking military budgets

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by Jim Mannion*

Riding the crest of the longest defence buildup in its history, the US military is heading into a funding crunch that will force wrenching change no matter who is elected president in November, analysts say.
Doubts about how the military will meet a range of challenges — from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to preparing for different kinds of conflicts in the future– have intensified with the upheaval on Wall Street.
Even before the world financial crisis, though, the Defence Department was bracing for shrinking budgets as the war in Iraq winds down and competing claims on the federal budget swell, analysts say.
"The DoD (Department of Defence) is no longer going to have the luxury of not having to make choices," said Travis Sharp, an analyst with the Centre for Arms Control Policy.
"They are going to have to start making some real decisions about what are the core missions for the United States military and the world, where are American interests fundamentally threatened, where do we need to be operating," he said.
How the new administration and the Pentagon handle those pressures are certain to be closely watched by US allies as well as potential adversaries.
A key question for them will be whether the US military can continue to play the same post-World War II role as a guarantor of international security. And if not, how should they respond?
The theme of scaled down expectations has surfaced in speeches by senior defence officials in recent weeks.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned Europeans last month in a speech in England that they had gone too far in demilitarizing, suggesting that they needed to assume greater responsibility for NATO defences.
In the United States, he has warned Americans about the limits of US military power, and argued for more effective use of diplomacy and other non-military tools.
"Be modest about what military force can accomplish, and what technology can accomplish," Gates told rising officers in a recent speech to the National Defence University.
Gates said growth in US military spending is "probably a thing of the past" and the Pentagon will be fortunate if it keeps pace with inflation.
In real terms, the 612 billion dollar defence authorization signed last month by President George W. Bush is the largest since World War II and, analysts say, probably the high water mark of a seven year buildup, the longest ever.
It includes 487.7 billion dollars for the base defence budget, more than 54 billion dollars for national security programs in the Department of Energy, and 70 billion dollars as a down payment on war costs that could ultimately total 170 billion dollars for the year.
"The military's daily task list is not getting shorter," wrote RAND analysts Bruce Held and James Quinlivan in a recent paper.
"But it is unreasonable to expect that the military can do more with less, so the question will become: What things should no longer be done?"
That debate is already underway within the military, which is struggling to strike a balance between the demands of counter-insurgency warfare in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to prepare for high-intensity conventional warfare as a hedge against rising powers like China.
The Defence Department is in the process of expanding its ground forces by nearly 100,000 troops at a huge expense to ease strains on the force.
The Air Force and Navy meanwhile have cut back their troop strength to preserve funding for costly new aircraft and warships.
"I'm not sure at this point that we can really predict who is going to win this intellectual battle that is going on right now in the Pentagon. But it certainly is a battle," said Sharp.
"On one side are the counter-insurgents, the Petraeus school, the Gates school, these people who really want to increase the size of the ground forces and want the United States to focus on stabilization, reconstruction."
"On the other side you've got … the people who think all this counter-insurgency stuff is great but really we need to be prepared for the next big one," he said, referring to possible future conflict with China or Russia.
Steven Kosiak, an expert at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, said that historically the Pentagon has resolved these kinds of funding crunches by moving to a smaller, capital-intensive military.
But with the army and marine corps at war, he said, "it's difficult to see them scale back that force structure, at least for the foreseeable future."
What that means, he said, is that new weapons systems are likely to fall under the budget-cutting axe.

* AFP

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