Trimming U.S. military spending

U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled his 2015 fiscal budget and, as expected, it includes significant cuts in military spending. The budget includes a $496 billion defense budget that trims the size of the armed forces and calls for the elimination of several weapons systems.

The plans are controversial in the United States and have even engendered some questions among U.S. allies. As recent events on the Crimean Peninsula remind us, the threat of conflict remains real and the world’s remaining superpower, and Japan’s only ally, must remain prepared for contingencies.

The U.S. has been on a war footing for more than a decade. Now it plans to cut, if not eliminate, its troop presence in Afghanistan; therefore, a reduction in the U.S. military budget is to be expected. A country’s “peacetime” military posture should be smaller and less expensive. The austerity mentality that has descended upon U.S. politicians and planners did not exempt the military. New spending guidelines and constraints demand cuts at the Pentagon.

Understandably, then, the budget released this week means that military outlays will remain essentially flat for the third consecutive year. That is in line with the decade-long plan for defense spending cuts of nearly $1 trillion, which is no mean feat. But American “hawks” are offended by this idea.

The headline-grabbing cuts have been the decision to downsize the army to 440,000 to 450,000 active-duty soldiers over the next five years, a cut of about 10 percent from the current force level of 490,000. This will mean that the U.S. Army will be the smallest that it has been since 1940, just before the buildup for World War II.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also decided to eliminate the entire fleet of A-10 Warthog aircraft, a ground-hugging plane that supports ground troops, as well as the famous U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. An army ground combat vehicle will be killed, as will two satellites; while two other satellites will be delayed and an army communications system will be scaled back.

The logic behind the reductions — apart from imposed spending cuts — is that future wars will not be protracted land battles and that a smaller, more nimble and flexible military will be crucial, especially in Asia where conflict is most likely to occur at sea or on island territories. The size of the Asia-Pacific region also means that mobility will be critical. In this environment, there will also be a premium on research and development that allows the U.S. to retain its technological advantage.

Asia weighs heavily on the minds of U.S. defense planners. Implementing the U.S. “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region” leads the list of Department of Defense priorities in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the strategy document produced every four years to guide strategic planning at the Pentagon and which was released with the budget this week.

While doubts continue to swirl around the feasibility of the military rebalance and the strength of the U.S. commitment to shift its focus to the region, the QDR seems unequivocal. It characterizes the region as “increasingly central to U.S. political, economic and security interests” and “inextricably linked” to the U.S.

Modernization of the alliance will be, according to the QDR, “the centerpiece” of the rebalance. Washington along with its allies and partners are rethinking and recalibrating roles, missions, capabilities and responsibilities.

This is part of the context in which Japan’s own security debates are taking place. New threats and new security challenges, along with the fiscal constraints that all governments face, require a new mind-set in Tokyo. They do explain, to some degree, the Abe administration’s moves to rethink the traditional interpretation of the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9, which is that Japan is prohibited from exercising the right to collective self-defense, and to flesh out a new policy of “proactive pacifism.”

It is important for Japan to carefully consider the positive role that the long-standing strictures placed on Japan’s exercise of the right to collective self-defense have played in shaping Japan’s postwar international reputation and the negative effects that a reinterpretation could produce.

After discussing alliances, the QDR turns to regional security architecture, rightly noting that security policy is multidimensional. It says that Japan can make, and should be making, contributions in several fields in the manner most appropriate to its own circumstances and constraints.

Critics have already charged that the new defense budget goes too far in downsizing the military. They point to the conflict in Ukraine, the crisis in Syria and China’s assertiveness in Asia as worrying signs and argue that defense cuts send the wrong signal.

In some cases, the complaint is more prosaic: Members of Congress do not want to cut weapons programs and bases that provide jobs for their constituents.

Their opposition validates the efforts of defense contractors who have worked hard over the years to spread their programs around the country to ensure that they receive as much congressional support as possible in times like these.

Security specialists argue that strategy should shape the size of the military: Governments should first plot their objectives and then build the armed forces that they need to achieve those goals. That thinking makes sense, but it is naive.

Military planning does not occur in a vacuum. It reflects budget realities as much as military requirements. Budgets make strategy as much as planners do.