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05.05.2014 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The US Defence Cuts: Myth and Reality

546456The mainstream media networks have been really vocal in an attempt to conceal the underlying aims and reasons of the introduction of new cuts in the US defence budget and reduction in the size of its army. While the Hagel plan has been portrayed as a drastic scaling back of the US military—with headlines focusing on the cutback in total Army personnel to a level last seen before World War II—the real content of the budget is a shift in the military strategy of American imperialism.

Current fiscal realities of the US and political realities of the incumbent government which pledged to end the longest streak of land wars in the US history. An important factor which is not being highlighted much is that these defence cuts and reduction in military’s size are actually a corollary result of the new war strategy of the US. These two developments are actually a result of the US decision to rely more on high-tech mechanical warfare in the future, which will be much more devastating than the ones in which human beings are main combatants. Not only would introduction of and increased reliance on fighting machines, such as drones and fighting robots, reduce human casualties but also reduce public pressure on the US government considerably, which comes as a result of human casualties —hence, more freedom for the US to play havoc around the world.

 To begin with, the very notion of cuts in defence budget is ambiguous and illusive. Under this plan, the US defence budget would continue to grow in actual terms. Even with the proposed $500 billion reduction, the US, in actuality, would continue to spend more on defence each year in the next decade than it did during the height of the Cold War.

Notwithstanding this ambiguity, the defence cuts are not of overriding significance since these are related to the end of long wars, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. With the end of wars in sight now, which have consumed more than $6 trillion, the equivalent of $75,000 for every American household; it is but natural to expect that the defence budget would come down. However, it would not have any significant impact on the growth of US economy as is being portrayed. According to a report of the US’ own premier institution, Harvard University, these two wars have not only left the US heavily indebted, but would also continue to have a profound impact on the federal government’s fiscal and budgetary crises over a protracted period. It is pertinent to recall that the Bush administration had claimed at the very outset that the Iraq war would finance itself out of Iraqi oil revenues, but Washington DC, instead, has ended up borrowing some $2 trillion to finance the two wars, the bulk of which came from foreign lenders. Needless to say, the cost of the two wars today now accounts for roughly 22 per cent of the total amount added to the US national debt between 2001 and 2013.

As such, the announced cut in defence budget is just an end of huge war-spending only, rather than an actual decrease in the pre-war defence spending. Since 9/11 the US defense budget grew by leaps and bounds. Over the next decade, after the defence cuts have been operationalized, the budget would naturally grow less, but will still go up, and it will still be quite larger than it was at the end of the Bush administration in 2007-08. In other words, the US withdrawal from both Iraq and Afghanistan followed by “small” budget signifies a reorientation of its post-withdrawal military strategy to achieve other objectives in Asia—hence, the so-called “Asia Pivot.” Cuts in defence budget, as such, do not mean that the US would forego its self-assumed global policeman role. 

Secondly, it is quite significant to note that the cuts are not to be made from the actual defence budget in the strict sense of the word. There will be significant cuts in subsidies for military commissaries at the US bases, which will fall from $1.4 billion to $500 million. Similarly, housing subsidies for the US army men will also be capped, meaning that military personnel will begin to pay a greater share of the cost, as rents and utility charges rise.

Other aspects of the proposed changes include reduction in the size of military and redesigning of the fighting force. Accordingly, army strength is to go down from 570 thousand to 490. Marine Corps is to face cuts of almost 23 thousand from its current strength of 202 thousand men. The process of reduction is set to begin from 2015. Notwithstanding these would-be developments, like the notion of cuts in defence budget, this notion is also ambiguous because there is no reason to accept that the US would focus less on its national security by reducing the size of military; in reality, it is just revamping its military to meet geo-political requirements in post-Afghanistan future. As a result, at a time when the army is going to decrease, Special Operations Forces’ size is to grow from roughly 66,000 today to 69,700 in five years. Like the size of defence budget, reduction in size of the army is actually going back to the pre-war size, with an additional emphasis on an increased deployment of highly agile and technologically advanced Special Forces. Also, the proposed reduction in the size of military does not mean that the basic mission of the US, that is maintaining global hegemony, would not be, or even less enthusiastically pursued at all. 

The idea of having such a force ready-to-move on short notice force is, however, not entirely new. It has been the same concept in force before the protracted land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started, because of which the US army’s strength grew by 65 thousand. Now, it is this very “surplus” army that the US is going to replace.

The US military will be “reshaped” between now and 2020 with an emphasis on countering terrorism, maintaining a nuclear deterrent, protecting the US homeland and deterring and defeating aggression by any potential adversary anywhere in the world, with an increase in the number of and reliance on Special Forces instead of regular forces. That’s what the US’ official document Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, in nutshell, says. Protection of both national and global interests are both explicitly and implicitly an intrinsic part of this “new” strategy. 

The prime focus of this shift is however not Europe. According to the above mentioned document, the US military presence in Europe would be reduced but not at the expense of discontinuing its long-term alliance with NATO. However, given the kind of developments taking place in the Non-European world, especially in Asia and the Pacific region, the focus of the US global strategy is to be shifted to a renewed commitment to the security of the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. Not only would the US keep fighting forces in the Middle East, but also pro-actively engage in maintaining regional “stability.” As to the notion of “Asia Pivot”, the Pentagon clearly sets sights on China as a potential competitor and a formidable adversary to be reckoned with. However, the US is also weary of costs involved in maintaining a permanent military presence in the region because of geographical distance. It is for this reason that the US, according to the new strategy, intends to fight future wars not with conventional land forces but with air, sea and digital operations, which are more suitable than land armies. 

The White House officials have already started to take into account new military warfare technologies. For example, the U2 spy plane is to be replaced with the remotely piloted Global Hawk to facilitate global monitoring, reconnaissance and surveillance, and selected targeting. In addition to it, the US has also planned to have 1,500 to 1,800 sea- and air-based first-strike cruise missiles by 2015 and 2,500 to 3,000 by 2020.The US also aims to combine PGS [Prompt Global Strike] with its space and anti-missile technologies in order to form an integrated defence system which can, when operational, render other countries’ strategic weapons, including nuclear arms, almost useless because it would enable the US to deliver a precision non-nuclear weapon anywhere in the world just within one hour.

This can practically put other countries, not having such technology at their disposal, in a serious strategic dilemma: they either lose the capability to launch a strategic nuclear counterattack or even maintain minimum credible deterrence. 

Apart from it, these developments also mean that the US would no longer be pursuing a strategy based on waging long duration land wars in future. Highlighting the US’ changed methodology in terms of exercising military muscle in the world, Secretary Hagel said in a briefing to Pentagon that the rise of a “new center of power” throughout the globe means “a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable and, in some instances, more threatening to the United States.” However, he also stressed that this “does not mean that the US sees any more ground wars in its future”, particularly as it wraps up America’s longest war in Afghanistan.  But, on the contrary, it does mean, especially given the above mentioned developments, that the US would wage wars which are fought not on ground but in the air, on the seas and also contested on cyber space. 

The US decision to bolster the application of Special Forces and new technologies reflects, in simple words, what the target countries are most likely to face – enhanced US efforts to internally destabilize the target country, application of CIA/Military contractors like Blackwater, and employment of special military troops wherever and whenever needed. It is quite evident that the US is redesigning its military to fight different kinds of wars in future which would involve attacks by sea, air and cyberspace, with less emphasis on significant ground combat especially on the Asian mainland, the only form of battle in which China for example, with its enormous manpower, might have an advantage over the US. In simple words, contrary to the myth projected through the media, the underlying aim of the cuts and redesigning of the military is not to fight no more wars; but to strategically outmaneuver adversaries, both strategically and tactically, who are also engaged in increased military modernization. In other words, the aim is to preserve the US global hegemony and not to allow any state or non-state actor whatsoever to challenge it. Its logic is to design a more capable defence apparatus to fight more lethal wars. It has less to do with economic austerities but certainly more with global power politics.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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