x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Will the world pay for a slimmed down US military?

The US budget crisis will force some cuts in the American defence establishment, by far the world's largest. The consequences may be complicated.

Barack Obama claimed on Thursday to have seen the future of combat. He announced a new strategic vision for the US military. America will shed its "outdated Cold War-era systems", he said, and create a "leaner" fighting force that is "agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats".

There is just one problem: Mr Obama didn't have a choice.

He made these remarks shortly after signing the Congressional Budget Control Act, which requires large government spending cuts. Like the US defence budget, the US military is about to become smaller out of necessity, more than because of Mr Obama's vision of the future.

The US Congress has mandated military spending be cut by anywhere between $500 billion (Dh1.8tr) and $1 trillion over the next decade. In concrete terms that means roughly 100,000 fewer soldiers and around 200 fewer aircraft.

Reeling from a decade of spending on two wars and a painful recession, Americans no doubt are eager to see a peace dividend.

There is probably ample room for spending cuts. The two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, by most counts, cost US taxpayers around $1 trillion. The Pentagon, by its own admission, was paying around $400 a gallon to put fuel into armoured vehicles in Afghanistan.

Mr Obama's speech, however, rang of political doublespeak. It was especially striking to hear him quote the former US President Dwight Eisenhower's farewell speech to the nation.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War and fears of the spread of communism and consequent calls for greater military spending to counter the threat, he said: "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."

This is the same President Eisenhower who unveiled the so-called "New Look" national security policy, which drastically cut the manpower of the US military and concentrated on building a massive air force designed to drop atomic weapons. He too was convinced that this was the future of warfare.

The New Look policy was also widely blamed for creating the so-called "hollow military" of the 1970s, a termed coined soon after the then President Jimmy Carter was considering bombing Iran during the hostage crisis. He reportedly asked how many B-52 bombers the Air Force could muster, and was told: four.

The reason was that while the US had grown a massive air force, it lacked mechanics, support aircraft, supplies and fuel to get them airborne. Today, the "hollow military" or "hollow force" has sprung up in almost every piece of punditry condemning Mr Obama's planned revamp of the US military, with some justification.

The US has a habit of drawing down after a conflict only to be left unprepared for the next one. It is a cycle that has happened with unerring regularity since the First World War, and started even after the country's War for Independence when it reduced its army size to 80 people.

Every reduction in military might has been followed by a conflict that left the US struggling to muster the number of troops it needed to effectively engage.

The most recent examples in Iraq and Afghanistan are no different. The US resorted to calling up thousands of inactive military personnel, some of whom had not trained for years, and National Guardsmen.

Despite what his critics may argue, Mr Obama is unlikely to create another hollow military.

A reduced number of soldiers overall can be expected to create a better equipped, more capable and - most importantly - cheaper fighting force.

But his conclusion that this will make America better equipped to wage war does not necessarily follow. The world has yet to see a conflict where the size of your army does not matter.

It should be noted, however, that the overall size of militaries across the globe has steadily reduced since the end of the Cold War. But this period of relative calm is in large part due to the military might of the United States.

Mr Obama would have America, as well as its allies and enemies across the globe, believe that the US can spend half a trillion dollars less and yet field a stronger military.

If wars could be won with drones and superior technology alone, he would be right. Unfortunately, neither history nor common sense has convinced anyone of this.

Rather than perpetuate the crimes of his predecessors Mr Obama should have encouraged a serious debate on the future of international security, from Asia Pacific to the Middle East. He tacitly admits that the US cannot continue to field a military the likes of which we saw in the mid-20th century, but then claims that this is no worry.

America is no longer capable or willing to be the sole guarantor of world peace. Increasing international security cooperation has rightly been the watchword of the current US administration since Mr Obama's inauguration.

America will not be able to prevent the next major war forever. At the same time, the world will not cease to produce Adolf Hitlers, Kaiser Wilhelms, Kim Il-sungs, or even those who will be seen as comparatively minor villains in future history books, such as Osama bin Laden.

Mr Obama said last week: the US "can't afford to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past".

He would be wise to remember the words of the 20th century philosopher, George Santayana. "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

 

Sean McLain is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi and a former feature writer for The National