Robert Kaplan has a typically trenchant op-ed in the Financial Times today about the need for the U.S. to build up its air and naval forces in the western Pacific to counter China and other states that are rapidly building up their own arsenals. He notes: “There is a big difference between a 346-ship U.S. Navy and a 250-ship Navy – the difference between one kind of world order and another.”
Unfortunately, our Navy is already at 284 ships and even without further budget cuts is likely to fall in size. That decline could accelerate and become catastrophic if Congress and the White House go ahead with plans to cut a further $600 billion from the defense budget as a result of the failure of the super-committee. There is already talk in Washington that the entire F-35 program—designed to provide the fifth-generation fighter for all of the military services for decades ahead—could be scrapped. If we do that, we will accelerate a dangerous power shift, leading to the rise of China and the decline of American power.
But there is nothing inevitable about that outcome. President Obama has threatened to veto any bill that tries to exempt the defense budget from sequestration. He appears sanguine about defense cuts. On the other hand, Mitt Romney, his leading challenger (full disclosure: I am a campaign adviser), has vowed to maintain robust spending on defense that would allow the expansion of the Navy without the evisceration of the ground forces. Rick Perry has called on Leon Panetta to resign rather than accept massive cuts. Even Newt Gingrich, who seemed open to defense cuts during the AEI/Heritage debate, has now said sequestration would be “totally destructive” and “very dangerous to the survival of the country.”
It is commonly said about every election that it is a potential turning point with major implications for the country’s future. In many cases that’s just partisan hype. In the case of the 2012 election, it’s true: the future of the U.S. armed forces, and of American power in general, could turn on the outcome.