Defense in an Age of Austerity

U.S. Defense Department Needs to Set Priorities, Weigh Risks

By Stuart E. Johnson and Irv Blickstein

Stuart Johnson is a RAND senior policy analyst who focuses on national security strategy and the forces and resources needed to implement that strategy. Irv Blickstein is a RAND senior engineer with expertise in military budgets and defense spending.

Unless the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration avert the mandated sequestration of $1.2 trillion from the discretionary accounts of the federal budget, then severe cuts of nearly equal amounts will be imposed on U.S. defense and domestic programs beginning in March 2013. In other words, if and when this sequestration occurs, the U.S. defense budget will be reduced by some $500 billion beyond the $487 billion in cuts already programmed over the next decade by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Where might the department find these savings? Some could and should be found by introducing further efficiencies, reforming acquisition practices, and adjusting personnel compensation packages. But these steps alone would not yield savings of the magnitude that might be required.

Reductions of the magnitude implied by sequestration should not be made without a reexamination of the current U.S. defense strategy. The department would no longer be able to afford the suite of capabilities envisioned by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in his strategic guidance issued in January 2012. Although making across-the-board cuts or eliminating programs that offer prompt savings would be tempting options, they would yield an unbalanced force in the short term and potentially higher program costs in future years.

Reductions of the magnitude implied by sequestration should not be made without a reexamination of the current U.S. defense strategy.

The prudent approach would be to decide first on a strategic direction, clarifying which forces and equipment the United States should preserve as priorities and which could be cut back or eliminated. Establishing a strategic direction prior to such reductions would limit the risk they might impose or, at the very least, make that risk explicit to U.S. leaders. This effort would entail prioritization of the defense challenges and of what risks to accept, with program and budget decisions following.

While not advocating further defense cuts, we offer three alternative ways to cut roughly $400–$500 billion more from U.S. defense programs over the next decade without crippling the force. At the upper end, this amount reaches the level of cuts suggested by the sequestration mandate. Each alternative strategic direction is summarized below, outlining the force reductions and other programmatic cuts that would be necessary to achieve the targeted savings. To further illuminate the dialogue that can and should take place, we make explicit the risks that would be incurred by following one or another of the alternative strategic directions. These alternatives are not mutually exclusive, and combinations of features of each are possible.

Alternative I

Prepare for Persistent Land-Based Conflict

Projected Savings, Fiscal Years 2014–2023: $488–$523 billion

This option assumes that violent extremism and related insurgencies will outlast efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and remain a serious threat to the United States and its interests — first and foremost, the protection of its citizenry. Therefore, readiness to respond to that threat must remain a top U.S. defense priority. This alternative retains the capability to commit sizable U.S. land forces for counterinsurgency and stabilization operations. Ground forces would not be scaled back beyond the reductions outlined by Panetta in January 2012. However, aviation and maritime forces would be drawn down further than currently planned.

The principal risks of this option are that U.S. local partners will remain dependent on the U.S. military to provide for their security and that the technologies critical for future defense challenges will receive inadequate investment.

Alternative II

Cede More Responsibility to Allies and Partners

Projected Savings, Fiscal Years 2014–2023: $496–$504 billion

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta collects his thoughts during a briefing at the Pentagon.

The United States would notify its allies that they have the lead in defending shared interests in their regions, particularly when their interests are greater than those of the United States. This option would include ceding to NATO allies the lead responsibility for security around the Mediterranean perimeter, for counterpiracy operations in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and for the bulk of ground and tactical air forces to deter Russia from coercing or invading NATO countries in Central Europe. The United States would still serve as the focal point around which America's Asian allies would coordinate their resistance to Chinese assertiveness. While the United States would continue to be the key counterweight to China, capable Asian allies would be urged to strengthen their efforts to defend themselves and the critical sea-lanes in their region.

In parallel, the United States would redouble its efforts to build up the capacity of local forces in countries at risk of insurgency or aggression; the aim would be to reduce the likelihood that U.S. forces would have to deploy in large numbers to counter an insurgency and establish stability. The United States would still be a strong partner that provides high-end enabling capabilities, including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and long-range precision strike.

The principal risk of this option is that the allies would not assume leadership in defense of common interests, leaving those interests more exposed. There is also the risk that building the capacity of partner security forces will not succeed due to ineffective or illegitimate governments. In the latter case, the United States might need once more to intervene to stabilize a critical situation; but, with reduced ground forces, the United States would have less capacity to do so.

Alternative III

Focus on Asia and the Western Pacific

Projected Savings, Fiscal Years 2014–2023: $383–$408 billion

In line with the 2012 strategic guidance, this option posits that the center of gravity of U.S. defense challenges is shifting, and will continue to shift, from Europe and the Middle East toward Asia and the Western Pacific. Accordingly, this option calls for focusing on the Asia-Pacific region while accepting even deeper cuts in forces earmarked for the Euro-Atlantic region and the Greater Middle East than called for in the 2012 strategic guidance. This option would reduce demands for U.S. ground forces and short-range tactical aircraft, which have proven more critical to operations in the Greater Middle East than to those in the Western Pacific.

The principal risk of this option is that if the extremist threat to U.S. interests in the Greater Middle East does not recede, then the United States would need to regenerate a capability to respond.

The second and third alternatives include a common feature: If the United States enters a conflict, it will focus on defeating the aggressor and inflicting severe damage on its military forces to neutralize its ability to repeat the aggression. The ensuing operations would include minimal stabilization efforts but not an extended, sizable presence of U.S. forces in the region.

Any cuts of the magnitude being examined will carry risk. The advantage of beginning with a strategic direction — and specifying priorities — is that choices can be made that mitigate risk in one area by accepting some risk in another, less critical area. Moreover, by tying budget decisions to a strategic direction, the risks are made explicit both to policymakers, so they can adjust their decisions accordingly, and to the body politic, to create realistic national expectations. square

Editor's note regarding projected savings: Dollar totals include both strategic savings (in personnel and weapon systems) and nonstrategic savings (in health, compensation, and retirement packages).