Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
In his recent budget speech, Barack Obama mounted his third attack on U.S. defense spending. In 2009 the White House directed Defense Secretary Robert Gates to terminate more than $300 billion in weapons programs, including the F-22 Raptor, the world's most capable aircraft, and the Army's Future Combat Systems family of vehicles. This past year, Gates volunteered $100 billion in Pentagon "efficiencies," for which the administration rewarded him by slicing off another $78 billion. Now the president proposes to subtract an additional $400 billion from future military budgets. Defense is the one government activity that Obama has no qualms about cutting.
By every measure, the armed forces of the United States have been "doing more with less" for more than two decades. The number of Americans on active duty has been reduced by a third. Reservists have helped pick up the burden of repeated deployments. Reagan-era weapons have been refitted with new electronics, new munitions, and employed in innovative ways. A force built to blunt a Soviet thrust through the Fulda Gap on the north German plain has reinvented itself to master the requirements of persistent irregular warfare and to address the "anti-access" challenges posed by China and Iran. But a nation cannot long secure itself or its interests if its defense "planning" depends upon genius generalship, unending sacrifice by lieutenants, captains, and NCOs, and constant deployment of rapidly aging planes, ships, and vehicles. In war, you usually get what you pay for.
The path charted by the president is morally and strategically unsound. Obama argued that entitlement cuts would "[change] the basic social compact in America," and vowed to defend the status quo. Yet he is prepared to take risks with the social compact between the civilian majority and the extremely few Americans — less than one percent of us — who risk their lives and kill our enemies in our name. The basic compact of the "All-Volunteer Force" is not simply that people in uniform will be paid decently and their families cared for. It also presumes that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines will have the wherewithal to win whatever battle they are sent to fight.
Thus far, the president has relied on the credibility of his defense secretary to soothe fears about defense cuts. In his deficit speech, Obama blithely called on Gates to "do that again," even though the White House dropped its $400 billion budget bomb on the Pentagon with only 24 hours' warning. The White House did offer Gates a bureaucratic fig leaf in the form of a "comprehensive review," but that review, like the administration's recent Quadrennial Defense Review, will be a process with one purpose: meet the budget target.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are struggling to balance their commitment to a strong defense with their desire to reduce the government overall. Thus Rep. Paul Ryan's deficit-reduction plan adopted what, until this week, had been Obama's defense numbers. But now the House leadership will have to decide whether to accept Obama's new proposed cuts or fight back. This is indeed a defining moment for conservatism: Is it still a Reaganite movement?
Last August, Gates confessed that his "greatest fear is that in economic tough times people will see the defense budget as the place to solve the nation's deficit problems, to find money for other parts of the government." Gates understood that there are consequences to balancing the budget on the backs of our soldiers:
As I look around the world and see . . . more failed and failing states, countries that are investing heavily in their militaries . . . as I look at the new kinds of threats emerging from cyber to precision ballistic and cruise missiles and so on, my greatest worry is that we will do to the defense budget what we have done four times before. And that is, slash it in an effort to find some kind of a dividend to put the money someplace else. I think that would be disastrous in the world environment we see today and what we're likely to see in the years to come.
The president Gates serves is charting a course to realize his fears and worries. The Republican Party should choose a different path.