The Risks of Austerity

Feb. 1, 1988

Overshooting the end of the fiscal year by nearly three months, the Administration and Congress finally settled on a budget last December 22. Throughout this extended spectacle, attention was riveted on the federal deficit to the virtual exclusion of all else. It may thus have escaped public notice that, almost as a side issue, three significant changes have just taken place in defense preparedness policy.

• The armed forces are about to become smaller.

• They will be less capable in the years ahead.

• We will accept a higher level of risk to national security.

This position, announced in December by the Pentagon, has absolutely nothing to do with defense requirements. The government, under pressure of the deficit, simply decided to cut spending and worry late about the consequences. (See “The Five-Year Drought,” p. 16 of this issue.) The Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS) has never been a pristine process, but now it is working backwards. The government first sets the budget level, then programs the resources, and leaves planning to be done last and on the shortest notice.

The Defense Department has conceded that radical budget reductions are inevitable, given the prevailing mood of Congress and the voters. It has said clearly, though, that the reductions will mean leaving some contingencies uncovered and some threats unanswered. So far, this warning has not caused much alarm outside the defense community. Many Americans take comfort in assurance by the anti-defense propaganda mill that cuts will scarcely be felt in a program that was already too big.

In fact, defense currently consumes less of the Gross National Product and a smaller share of federal spending than it did twenty years ago when no deficit existed. The Reagan Administration’s program to rearm America stalled out in 1985. The Senate Appropriations Committee calculates that, after inflation, defense budgets have declined by ten percent in the last three years. Now the armed forces are told that they must cut their plans by ten to twelve percent in each of the next five years.

The sloganeers will call on the troops to “do more with less,” and snake-oil salesmen will argue that the cuts do no real damage. Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s warning is accurate. We are about to see a degradation of US combat capability.

To take a calculated risk with national security is bad enough. Unwillingness to recognize the risk makes it far more dangerous. Just as the nation has set the budget without regard for requirements, it also tends to adopt strategies that have little connection to capabilities. The United States clings to its traditional aspirations in the world, but all three of its instruments of power — the military, the economic, and the diplomatic — command less respect than they once did.

Advocates of the reduction have been quick to insist that with almost 2,000,000 people on active military duty and a defense budget approaching $3000 billion, the United States will hardly be left unprotected. Well, yes. The risk is relative, not absolute. But there are already gaps and weak spots in what US forces can cover now, and soon there will be more.

While Congress was in the middle of its budget cuts, President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were shaking hands on the removal of intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. Arms-control enthusiasts had campaigned long and hard for such an agreement. In the days when talk was cheap, even the foremost critics of defense admitted that a nuclear drawdown would have to be paired with an increase in conventional forces to balance the Warsaw Pact’s advantage in tactical units and tank armies. Now that the treaty is in sight, US forces are being reduced instead, and Congress is keeping a tight lid on trop ceilings in Europe. There will also be decreases in weapons production, system modernization, sustainability, and combat support. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see the increased risk here.

The amount of military power a nation needs to secure its interest and carry out its strategy cannot be computed precisely. There are always elements of chance and risk. The adequacy of a weapons package against a given target is an estimate — although a pretty good one — expressed as a percentage of probability. High probabilities of success in most strike missions require a heavy commitment of forces, and when fewer forces are available, the chances of success diminish. Sometimes it is possible to beat the odds, but it’s risky to plan that way.

It is at the level of international power politics, however, that uncertainties abound. A defense strategy must take into account not only the deterrence or defeat of an attack on US and allied territory but also the preservation of numerous other interests, including economic ones. History often turns on the unexpected. Nations seldom behave logically and almost never predictably.

At present, the likelihood of a direct attack on the United States is remote, but there is no guarantee that this will continue to be so. Military and political circumstances today put the Soviet Union in a stronger position to influence world events than it was a few years ago. How sure can we be that the Soviets will not try to exploit this advantage in some way injurious to us

The oil crises of the 1970s demonstrated our dependence on international lifelines and how suddenly they can be placed in jeopardy. Who knows where another Qaddafi or Khomeini might arise or when a crisis could develop in this hemisphere Who could have predicted the collapse of the US space program in 1986 What are the chances that we will be overtaken and surpassed in some crucial technology How effective will our more tightly constrained, less flexible strategy be in responding to the next lurch in global affairs

Perhaps it will work out all right. Risk is not the same thing as inevitability. Our interests may not come under serious challenge, or if they do, our reduced capabilities may still be enough to see us through. The United States has been a lucky nation for most of its 200-year existence. We had better hope that our luck holds out.