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Coming Defense Cuts: Where Will They Come From?

The forthcoming defense cuts, as laid out in the new DoD strategic document Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, calls for severe cuts in particular areas. The nuclear stockpile will be reduced and there will be a reduction of forces in Europe. The DoD says that it will particularly work to protect our capabilities in “special operations forces, in new technologies like [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and unmanned systems, in space, and in particular in cyberspace capabilities; and also our capacity to quickly mobilize if necessary,” said the Sec Def Leon Panetta. The Air Force will get its new stealth bomber, but otherwise they plan to get rid of “Cold War-era systems” which means other big platforms like navy ships, fighters, and tanks.

The challenge is that if you are going to reorient America’s national defense, you have to know with certainty what sort of threats we will face in the future. Changes made now will affect what our forces look like twenty years from now. Can we do that with certainty? Who would have projected in, say, 1991 that we would be fighting major ground battles in Iraq and Afghanistan? Can we know with certainty that we won’t need as many Cold War era platforms? What about the rise of China, which is investing in precisely these sorts of systems? Historically we have gone through significant swings because we were totally wrong in our projections. After World War II we dramatically cut back on defense spending, and things were shockingly bad in the early days of the Korean War. Likewise, we didn’t anticipate the military structure we would need to fight effectively in Vietnam. During the 1970s, we consistently underestimated the threat from the Soviet Union. In short, our military crystal ball has been very cloudy in the past.

In our difficult financial environment, some budget cuts are going to be necessary at the Pentagon. But if you trim things to the bone, you better be right in predicting the future. And the track record for the United States on that front has been particularly bad.

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