Britain’s Warning

Sept. 1, 2011

The immediate federal budget crisis passed Aug. 2 when President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011. The legislation raised the nation’s debt ceiling and set the groundwork for additional action to cut the massive federal deficit.

The national security impact of the deal is to cap “security spending”—a category that includes DOD and other accounts at $684 billion—not including war funding. This represents a cut of $5 billion (or less than one percent) compared to this year.

The real danger lies in the future as the government looks for ways to balance its books, or at least bring the balance of revenues and expenditures back to something resembling sanity. The first hurdle the nation needs to clear comes before Thanksgiving.

The 2011 budget act created a 12-person supercommittee to formulate a plan to cut the budget deficit by $1.5 trillion between 2012 and 2021. This is where things get really interesting.

Most observers expect DOD spending to either level off or decline in the coming years as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and the nation moves to put its fiscal house in order. If the committee fails to come to an agreement by Nov. 23, however, the law calls for automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts. These will slash nearly $50 billion annually from the Pentagon’s coffers alone.

Nothing focuses the mind quite like a deadline, so this provision may be a brilliant ploy to force an agreement, to avoid what everyone fears: draconian, arbitrary cuts.

Although a sensible defense budget is the goal, the trigger mechanism could backfire: A sudden nine percent cut to the defense budget courts disaster. To see how, simply look to the situation in the United Kingdom, which is facing a similar set of financial problems.

Newly elected Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron released a defense white paper last October that rolled out an austerity plan gutting military capabilities.

This shows the perils of budget-based planning. Among the specifics in the UK’s strategy:

  • The combined RAF and Royal Navy fleet of Harriers is sent to early retirement.
    • A plan to purchase short takeoff F-35 strike fighters is canceled to instead procure the less expensive carrier F-35 at a later date.
        The combination of the first two items will shockingly leave the UK for fully a decade with two new aircraft carriers but no fighters to fly off of them.
          All 20,000 British troops based in Germany will be brought home.
            Three RAF bases will be shuttered.
              17,000 uniformed troops will be cut overall, including 5,000 from the RAF.
                25,000 defense civilians will be turned loose onto the mean streets of Whitehall.

              An upgrade program for Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft was canceled, with the aircraft abruptly sent to retirement.

              The separate Nimrod reconaissance fleet was also retired, leaving a gap until RC-135s arrive in 2013.

              These dramatic moves represented a roughly nine percent reduction in UK defense spending—the same cut the Pentagon base budget faces if no debt plan is approved this fall.

              National security, in both the US and the UK, is derived first from a vibrant economy. It also requires that defense planners be able to plan for what the military is expected to do in the future. Britain negligently skipped the planning part (last October’s review was the first of its kind in 12 years) until the fiscal crisis hit.

              An August report by the House of Commons’ defense committee shines a harsh light on this. “A gap of 12 years between reviews should never be allowed to occur again,” the report states.

              The UK government’s plan reduces power and influence, and the nation’s role in the world will be diminished— perhaps never to be rebuilt.

              “A period of strategic shrinkage is inevitable,” the report states. “The government appears to believe that the UK can maintain its influence while reducing spending, not just in the area of defence but also at the foreign office. We do not agree.”

              Britain has already felt the strain. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009 placed more demand on the nation’s armed forces than the UK expected to face when it set its force size. In other words, the report notes, these two medium-size wars resulted in UK military “overstretch.”

              The problem may only get worse. Retired Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, former RAF head and chief of the defense staff, told the committee the UK’s plan appears to commit every military capability just to deal with continuing operations. This leaves nothing in reserve for surprises or larger contingencies.

              The government’s plan to deal with what the report calls “the legacy of overstretch” is to do less and make hopeful assumptions. The UK’s plan now implies the nation would not even attempt operations like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars simultaneously.

              British cuts leave severe capability gaps. Recovering will require a funding infusion as operations in Afghanistan end.

              The UK is, in essence, accepting a smaller role in the world. This comes with consequences—less ability to influence others, defend its interests, and exert power over long distances.

              Similarly, the US military defends the nation and its interests across a spectrum ranging from full-scale combat to worldwide disaster relief. It would be a shame to head down the UK’s road by ceding global leadership to generate short-term cost savings.

              “I will do everything I can to ensure that further reductions … are not pursued in a hasty, ill-conceived way that would undermine the military’s ability to protect America,” wrote new Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in an Aug. 3 message to DOD personnel.

              “This potential deep cut … is not meant as policy,” he continued. “Rather, it is designed to be unpalatable, to spur responsible, balanced deficit reduction and avoid misguided cuts to our security.”

              The debt commission and Congress can prevent scorched earth defense cuts by coming up with a rational debt reduction plan. They need to get this right.