Defense Budgets Cuts and Non-Traditional Threats to US Strategy

The US Congress has passed budget legislation that threatens devastating cuts in national security funding if the Congress does not act to find meaningful solutions to the nation’s debt and deficit problems by the end of 2011. These cuts, however, are only one of several non-traditional threats to US security.

The Burke Chair has prepared a detailed analysis of these threats and the extent to which they threaten America’s position in the world, its future military capabilities, and its lead in defense industry and technology.  This brief is entitled Defense Budgets Cuts and Non-Traditional Threats to US Strategy and it is available on the CSIS web site at

The brief analyzes the pattern of cuts in recent, ongoing, and possible future defense and national security spending that affects the US and its ability to project power and aid its friends and allies. It shows, however, that this is only part of the story:

  • The US may not face peer threats in the near to mid term, but it faces a wide variety of lesser threats that make maintaining effective military forces, foreign aid, and other national security programs a vital national security interest.
  • The US needs to reshape its national security planning and strategy to do a far better job of allocating resources to meet these threats. It needs to abandon theoretical and conceptual exercises in strategy that do not focus on detailed force plans, manpower plans, procurement plans, and budgets and use its resources more wisely.
  • The US still dominates world military spending, but it must recognize that maintaining the US economy is a vital national security interest in a world where the growth and development of other nations and regions means that the relative share the US has in the global economy will decline steadily over time even under the best circumstances.
  • At the same time, US dependence on the security and stability of the global economy will continue to grow indefinitely in the future. Talk of any form of “independence,” including freedom from energy imports, is a dangerous myth. The US cannot maintain and grow its economy without strong military forces and effective diplomatic and aid efforts.
  • US military and national security spending already places a far lower burden on the US economy than during the peaceful periods of the Cold War, and existing spending plans will lower that burden in the future. National security spending is now averaging between 4% and 5% of the GDP in spite of the fact the US is fighting two wars versus 6-7% during the Cold War.
  • No amount of feasible cuts in US national security spending can have more than a token impact on the US deficit and debt problems.
  • The most serious single threat the US faces to its national security comes from the non-traditional threat of entitlements spending, but this federal spending is driven by far more serious problems that cannot be addressed simply by altering federal spending. These are driven threats that extend beyond government spending:
  • An aging population that does not save or assume responsibility for retirement.
  • Unaffordable rises in the burden medical care puts on the economy which cannot be dealt with by cutting back the level of government spending without addressing the entire problem.
  • The steady decline in the size and military capability of our traditional allies poses another critical non-traditional threat. It is clear that no amount of US exhortation will change this situation and the US must reshape its strategy accordingly.
  • The rise of threats like terrorism is only one aspect of new shifts in the threats to the US that force it to work far more closely and effectively with non-traditional allies, reshape elements of its military spending and operations to help build up their capabilities, and maintain strong embassy teams and aid efforts to help bring political and economic stability.
  • The US must fundamentally rethink its approach to “optional wars.” It is far from clear that it can win the Iraq War, rather than empower Iran, without a strong military and aid presence. It will decisively lose the Afghan and Pakistan conflict if it does not quickly develop plans for a military and diplomatic presence, and help to aid Afghanistan in transitioning away from dependence on foreign military and economic spending during 2012-2020. US troop cuts are not a transition plan, and focusing on withdrawal is a recipe for defeat.
  • That said, the US cannot, and should not, repeat the mistake it made in intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan. It must deal with non-traditional threats with a far better and more affordable mix of global, regional, and national strategies that can deal with issues like the turmoil in the Middle East, and South and Central Asia, and terrorism and instability on a global basis. It must rely on aiding friendly states, deterrence, containment, and far more limited and less costly forms of intervention.
  • The new budget act poses a potentially crippling threat to US national security. Further major defense spending cuts pose a major additional non-traditional threat under these conditions. The US has already made major cuts in its defense efforts since FY2009, and has plans to make the equivalent of $350 billion in cuts before the new budget bill. It cannot absorb major additional cuts under these conditions.

The Department of Defense does, however, need to make new effort to deal with its own, self-inflicted non-traditional threats.

  • Massive rises in the cost per solider on active duty.
  • A quarter century of posturing, failed efforts to develop effective procurement programs and cost controls.
  • A fundamental breakdown in the ability to tie strategy to feasible, affordable programs.

It is also clear that far more integrated planning is needed at some point to address the proper mix of State Department, Department of Defense, various homeland defense, and Intelligence Community efforts. It is unclear that this would produce meaningful budget savings, but it is all too clear that the present compartmented and stovepiped efforts do not produce anything approaching an integrated strategy or efficient use of resources.