Wise Words from ‘Wise Men’ on US Defense and Security

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From Winter edition 2012  ON TRACK Vol. 17 No. 3.

Wise Advice on the Fiscal Cliff and US Security

The reelection of President Obama to a second term and his determination to deal with U.S. economic challenges – currently characterized by the ongoing discussions around the ‘fiscal cliff’- mean that the US Forces face a degree of austerity.

After a decade of expansion and active combat in foreign wars, re-examination of American national security policy and capacity is sensible. Common sense should prevail. Regardless, more will be expected from the rest of the Alliance.

Sequestration and already scheduled cuts would impose a haircut of almost 10 per cent on the Pentagon over the next decade. While Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has warned of a ‘meat-ax’ approach that would jeopardize national security, the devil will be in the detail.

Some perspective is also necessary: during the past decade, the base defense budget has nearly doubled, from $297 billion in 2001 to more than $520 billion and it was projected to rise to $700 billion by 2020. While the scope of the cuts is still unclear

Pentagon spending has lots of congressional protectors, especially with the bases and jobs that depend on research and hardware – aircraft and ships – that are built in nearly every corner of the country. There is acknowledgement even among defense advocates that they will need to do their part.

A group of wise persons – the Coalition for Fiscal and National Security, chaired by former Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral (ret.) Mike Mullen, have intervened with sensible advice that should be read by all the Allies.

Spanning eight administration the Coalition includes former defense secretaries Robert Gates, Harold Brown and Frank Carlucci; Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve;  former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill former senators Sam Nunn and Jack Warner, former House Armed Services chair Ike Skelton and former National Security Advisors Sam Berger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

They argue that the national debt is “the single greatest threat to our national security” and that the crisis “ has revealed a perhaps equally dangerous political one: Our inability to grapple with pressing fiscal challenges represents nothing less than a crisis in our democratic order. “

The U.S. accounts for 48 percent of the world’s military spending. While the overall budget may not shrink it will certainly not grow at the same rate as it has since 9/11. This will mean hard choices within the Department of Defense as they face new challenges around cyber-security and continue the pivot towards Asia, while trying to maintain current Force readiness.

Intelligent pruning is possible, however, and the Coalition observe: advances in technological capabilities and the changing nature of threats make it possible, if properly done, to spend less on a more intelligent, efficient and contemporary defense strategy that maintains our military superiority and national security.”

They argue that “advances in technological capabilities and the changing nature of threats make it possible, if properly done, to spend less on a more intelligent, efficient and contemporary defense strategy that maintains our military superiority and national security.” In the belief that an ounce of diplomacy is worth a pound of ‘shock and awe’, the Coalition recommends spending more on the State Department to enhance the “non-defense dimensions of our national security” and “diplomatic assets.”

In her confirmation testimony Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton elaborated on this approach. She defined ‘smart power’ as using all the tools at Americas disposal –  diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural – “picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation”   arguing that “with smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.”

The Americans will eventually find a way to avoid their ‘fiscal cliff’ because, as Churchill observed, you can always count on them to do the right thing, “after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” The Coalition concluded that the new compact requires not   “Herculean efforts, but a fusing of common sense, fairness, and pragmatism. It summons the truest form of patriotism – putting our country first.”

It will, however, require the Alliance to step up to the plate.

Both Gates and current Secretary Leon Panetta have called on the Allies to step up to the plate. Afghanistan and Libya illustrated the limits of the Alliance: despite relative unanimity around the mission when it came to operations in the field their commitment was variegated.  Some countries placed limits on their positions or caveats on the use of their forces. In Libya, eight allies bore the burden of the strike mission.

In the decade following 9/11, European defense spending declined by nearly 15 percent. Only five of the 28 allies now spent the agreed target of 2 percent of GDP on defense (for 2011 Canada stood at 1.4 percent).

In his farewell speech to the NATO Council (June 2011),  Gates warned of a ‘two-tiered’ alliance between those “willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership … but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.” Gates observed that “despite more than 2 million troops in uniform — not counting the U.S. military — NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets.” More recently, at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Prague (November, 2012) Secretary General Anders Rasmussen echoed the appeal and called on the legislators to ‘hold the line’ on defence spending.

Canada will be expected to do its part. We do so, not because the US is asking us to, but because of our longstanding commitment to collective security, More importantly, the national interest requires us to invest in our own security and not rely on others to do it for us.