Is America Still a Military Superpower?

As other nations gain some important military advantages, Washington must deal with sequestration. 

No doubt talk around those always busy coffee nooks and hallways in DC think tanks these past few weeks centered around the question of America’s defense budget. And with various proposals floating around the corridors of power, great conservative think tank studies breaking down U.S. defense needs along with a spirited debate concerning the size of various armed forces like the navy, the conversation has certainly been flowing. And so it should, considering the times we live in. 

America, in many respects, is a tired and weary superpower. Having fought two long and draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, many assumed that the nation rightly deserved some sort of “peace dividend.” And there is no doubt this makes sense—heck, it was done after the Cold War, why not now? 

After spending trillions of dollars in the Middle East in wars that certainly warranted spirited debate throughout America many assumed that Washington would stay engaged in the world but scale back its military might to something more affordable but still worthy of the title of “superpower.” With superpower interests— the world’s largest economy, treaty allies around the world we have sworn to protect and easy to see global interests like protecting things like the global commons—a superpower military is a must. 

Compounding America’s weary spell would be the hellacious Great Recession. Washington’s priorities naturally shifted to tackling the crisis. With a massive budget deficit and the nation staring down the worst financial disaster since the great depression, trimming the nation’s defense budget seemed to make even more sense. Cuts were expected by both sides of the aisle—but in a rational and reasonable manner. 

Such a scenario sadly was not in the cards. Thankfully, America would slowly crawl out of the Great Recession—but with a massive that needed to be reigned in. Instead of taking a slow and measured response while ensuring America’s force posture met the needs of the present day, the political pressure of the moment dictated the course. The solution was the Budget Control Act and Sequestration. While cuts were scaled back slightly in 2014 and 2015, their impact has been felt dramatically—with some even questioning the ability of the United States to carry out a number of the core missions its forces should be able to carry out with ease. 

Consider the recent comments of U.S. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who explained that the massive cuts to the defense budget are essentially putting lives at risk—clearly not the mark of any superpower. 

“The first mission at risk is to deter and defeat aggression, which really means to win a war at sea, while deterring another at sea in a different theater,” Greenert explained at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. “They will arrive with insufficient ordnance (my emphasis), and they’ll be without modern combat system sensors and networks that are required. And they will be inadequately prepared to fight.” Translation here folks: that means in a conflict lots of Americans would die simply because we have not given them the tools they need to fight. 

Other items that came out of Greenert’s testimony are just as shocking: 

For operations today, we have sufficient munitions. For operations in the future, my benchmark year — our benchmarks year is 2020. There’s a series of missions we have to do. They’re outlined on the card that I gave you, where they’re effectively based on upon the war plans. We have insufficient munitions in 2020, even in — and some munitions in the President’s budget, they are air-to- air, they are surface-to-surface, if you will, cruise missile. Some of our air to ground and as the — Senator Inhofe mentioned, the Joint Standoff Weapon, the JSOW. Now the air-to-air has to element. There’s a longer range and a medium range. Both of those have shortfalls

In our lightweight torpedo we have a shortfall and our heavyweight torpedo we have a shortfall. A shortfall is defined as the combatant command believes they need all of this to win in the mode, you know, campaign and you have to have enough to reload, so that you’re not just standing around here, saying, well, we won, but we’re empty, if you see what I mean. So that’s kind of the baseline, sir…….. 

Such comments are alarming—but we should not be surprised. Others have been making such remarks for a few years now. Congressman J. Randy Forbes explained to me back in December 2013 that “sequestration poses the most serious threat to our military’s readiness since the days of the ‘hollow force’ after the Vietnam War.” Forbes went on to add that “If sequestration is allowed to continue, nearly every aspect of our larger national defense strategy will be detrimentally impacted, including the ‘rebalance’ to the Asia Pacific.” 

Relative Military Decline and the China Factor

While the question of sequestration is an important one, something to consider is what I would argue is what would have naturally occurred anyway–the relative decline of U.S. military dominance. As many others have noted, as advanced military hardware like cruise missiles, various types of “smart munitions”, relatively cheap ultra quiet submarines, drones and cyber weapons slowly diffuse around the world, Washington’s advantages against possible state and non-state competitors will erode to a certain degree. What makes matters worse is sequester simply speeds up the process. 

A great example that illustrates the above is the budding U.S.-Sino security competition in the Pacific Ocean. As Elbridge Colby, the Robert M. Gates fellow at CNAS, points out quite smartly: The Chinese government announced on (last)Wednesday that it would increase military spending by about 10% this year. At first glance, this may not seem particularly remarkable. China’s spending on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has grown by almost 10% annually for the last decade and grew by comparable amounts in the preceding one. Of course, this in and of itself is significant and, for Americans and their allies, sobering. China has already put together a military that can begin to contest American military predominance in the Western Pacific. 

…Thus, whatever the inherent justifiability of China’s intentions, the brass tacks reality appears to be that Beijing will continue to move towards fielding a military increasingly capable of contesting America’s primacy in the Asia-Pacific. This is an uncomfortable and unpleasant truth for the United States and its allies and partners, which had become accustomed to an enduring American hegemony in maritime Asia. But it is a reality nonetheless… 

The example above demonstrates a clear problem: as the United States faces the relative decline of its military thanks to the natural diffusion of advanced military technology, nations like China are spending more on their military capabilities— even at a time when its economy is starting to have some difficulties achieving the mass growth rates of years past. As China’s military is not yet a global force, it has the luxury of focusing its defense expenditures in developing its anti-access/area-denial capabilities, which aim directly at perceived U.S. weaknesses. Sequestration only compounds the challenge. 

The good news is that many in Congress and in some respects the administration–in submitting a budget that busts the defense caps–see the problem and are working to try and find a solution. In what might be considered the best explanation of the difficulties America faces due to sequestration, John McCain and Mac Thornberry define the challenge before us in a recent joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal–while also putting to bed the notions of how some justify it: 

Some advocates of the BCA are willing to overlook its damage to national security because, they claim, at least it cuts the debt. But it doesn’t even do that in a meaningful way. 

Military spending is not to blame for out-of-control deficits and debt—it is now 16% of federal spending, the lowest share since before World War II. By 2020, it will be 13%. Interest on the debt soon will consume a larger portion of the federal budget than will military spending. Yet national defense took 50% of the cuts under the Budget Control Act and sequestration. The true drivers of the nation’s long-term debt—entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare—took none. 

Heaping nearly $1 trillion in cuts on the U.S. military while ignoring entitlements is not conservative fiscal policy and will not solve the problems of deficits and debt

They also offer what seems to be at least a budgetary solution to the problem while making an important point many Republican have seem to have missed: 

We must aim higher by adopting a budget worthy of our party’s best traditions of strong national defense. Given the severity of the challenges facing the nation, we recommend eliminating sequestration entirely with a defense budget of $577 billion, the level set by the Budget Control Act before the debilitating effects of sequestration. 

There is nothing conservative or Republican about pretending that Washington can balance the budget by cutting defense spending. 

We must also tackle the challenge of U.S. relative military decline by innovating while increasing funding for research and development. Here, we can take great pride that there are some strong efforts underway that have bipartisan support. Some examples include the efforts by Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and the “Third Offset,” as well as the work that was done in the Air-Sea Battle Office that is now transitioning that important operational concept into a multi-service and truly joint concept all services can appreciate. 

One must also point to the important work coming out of the nation’s think-tanks across the political spectrum. CNAS’ work on “the swarm,” CSBA’s rethink on undersea warfare and the Heritage Foundation’s important military index all show we can think “outside of the box” and ensure the foundations of U.S. military power despite the natural diffusing of weapons systems that were at one point only found among America and its allies. 

But in the end, all the great innovation in the world can’t heal a self inflicted wound. We must have the political courage to end sequestration—and it will take a group of like minded people from across the aisle not only speaking out but working together, something not popular these days. 

As we love to say here in Washington, “the optics” of sequester are nothing short of a disaster. Our allies and partners have the right to question our commitments to them when we can’t field a military force that may be called upon at a moment’s notice to defend shared interests. And as history loves to teach us time and time again, the unexpected and disastrous always seems to happen at the least opportune time. 

Clearly sequestration is not the defense policy of any nation that entertains the notion of superpower status—we must find the political courage and will to end it. 

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Editor of RealClearDefense, a member of the RealClearPolitics family of websites. Mr. Kazianis is also a non-resident Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute (non-resident). He is the former Executive Editor of The National Interest and former Editor of The Diplomat. Follow him (or yell at him) on Twitter: @grecianformula. 

The National Interest

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