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Yes, Excessive Defense Cuts Are Imprudent

Conventional wisdom is that after previous conflicts the U.S. has cut defense spending too much. As President Obama said in 2012: “We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past—after World War II, after Vietnam—when our military policy was left ill prepared for the future.” In the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia historian Melvyn Leffler, a Cold War specialist, would beg to differ. He claims that cutting the defense budget has actually been a good thing for American security—it has forced “Washington to think strategically, something it rarely does when times are flush,” and it has not left us “vulnerable to attack.” Therefore, he suggests, the current round of budget cuts, which amount to $1 trillion over the next decade, are a good thing.

If only he were right. In fact his article does not make a remotely persuasive case for his far-fetched proposition.

For one thing, even based on Leffler’s own account, defense resources were constantly out of whack with defense strategy over the past century. For example, in writing about the post-World War II drawdown, he notes that Truman’s “military chiefs told him that the United States’ commitments now far exceeded its capabilities and that US moves and Soviet countermeasures made war more likely.” Leffler concludes, “They were correct on both counts.” Later, in writing about the post-Cold War drawdown, he writes, “Given the austere domestic fiscal environment, the [George H.W.] Bush administration’s strategic concept—preparing for uncertainty, shaping the future, thwarting regional instability—guaranteed another growing gap between means and ends.”

Leffler seems to believe that these gaps should have been resolved not by increasing defense spending but by decreasing defense commitments. But he never suggests how this should have been accomplished—either in the past or the present day. Should the U.S. give up the defense of Europe? Asia? The Middle East? Stop fighting terrorists? Pirates? Weapons proliferation? Gross human rights abuses? He doesn’t say, and neither have policymakers in Washington. History suggests that there has been and will be no appetite for seriously trimming U.S. defense commitments even as defense spending plunges.

The more important issue with Leffler’s article is that he never refutes the popular—and accurate—notion that U.S. defense cuts encouraged foreign aggression in the past and got the U.S. embroiled in wars which it was poorly prepared to fight. He claims, “Given the absence of threats in the 1920s and the constraints on British, German, and Japanese forces until the mid-1930s, US defense policies were not imprudent in the aftermath of World War I.” Oh really? This is how the renowned military historian Rick Atkinson describes the state of U.S. Army readiness in 1939:

When the European war began in earnest on September 1, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland, the U.S. Army ranked seventeenth among armies of the world in size and combat power, just behind Romania. It numbered 190,000 soldiers. (It would grow to 8.3 million in 1945, a 44-fold increase.) When mobilization began in 1940, the Army had only 14,000 professional officers. The average age of majors—a middling rank, between captain and lieutenant colonel—was nearly 48; in the National Guard, nearly one-quarter of first lieutenants were over 40 years old, and the senior ranks were dominated by political hacks of certifiable military incompetence. Not a single officer on duty in 1941 had commanded a unit as large as a division in World War I. At the time of Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, only one American division was on a full war footing.

Some American coastal defense guns had not been test fired in 20 years, and the Army lacked enough antiaircraft guns to protect even a single American city. The senior British military officer in Washington told London that American forces “are more unready for war than it is possible to imagine.” In May 1940, the month that the German Blitzkrieg swept through the Low Countries and overran France, the U.S. Army owned a total of 464 tanks, mostly puny light tanks with the combat power of a coffee can.

There was also a mental unreadiness in many quarters. In 1941, the Army’s cavalry chief assured Congress that four well-spaced horsemen could charge half a mile across an open field to destroy an enemy machine-gun nest, without sustaining a scratch. This ignored the evidence of not only World War II, which was already two years underway, but also World War I.

 If this level of readiness—or lack thereof—was “not imprudent” it is hard to imagine what that awkward phrase might denote. Likewise, the U.S. Army was so ill-prepared for the Korean War in 1950 that Task Force Smith—the first U.S. Army unit sent to staunch the North Korean onslaught—was mauled. It didn’t even have enough ammunition, much less enough training. It’s hard, again, to imagine how this could be judged “not imprudent.”

What might the world have looked like if the U.S. had maintained more robust levels of military spending and readiness? No one knows, but if a large U.S. military force had been left in Europe in 1919, as occurred after 1945, Nazi Germany might have been deterred from aggression. Likewise if the U.S. Navy in the interwar period had spent more, Imperial Japan might have been deterred at least from attacking Pearl Harbor. And if the U.S. had maintained more robust defense spending after 1945 and made clear its commitment to the defense of South Korea, Kim Il Sung might never have sent his army to invade the south.

These are all counterfactuals, of course, and can never be proven one way or another. But it is a bit surprising that Leffler does not even address such scenarios. He seems to have started from an unconventional premise—that U.S. defense austerity is a great thing because it supposedly promotes great strategic thinking—and tailored his brief history to support this conclusion. But the preponderance of the evidence suggests a rather different conclusion—namely that in this area, as in so many others, the conventional wisdom is right: Excessive defense cuts have been dangerous in the past and they are dangerous today, at a time when the army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, is warning that only two brigades are combat-ready.