Yes, America Can Rebalance to Asia With a Smaller Military

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Yes, America Can Rebalance to Asia With a Smaller Military

Even in a time of budget cuts, America can successfully shift its gaze to the Asia-Pacific.

One year ago, the White House and the Department of Defense announced a change in emphasis for U.S. national security thinking from a strategy focused on stability and counterinsurgency operations in the Greater Middle East to one more concerned with East Asia and the Pacific region. Some observers argue that future constraints on defense spending will make such a shift unaffordable. On the contrary, a good dose of fiscal austerity may be just what the department needs to firm up its new strategy and undertake the force changes that will be needed to align with it.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 called for significant reductions to federal spending, including funding for national defense, between 2013 and 2021. Under that law, the total budget for national defense was set to shrink abruptly on January 2, 2013. The American Taxpayer Relief Act that Congress passed on New Year’s Day pushed the implementation of the cutback to March 27, 2013 and trimmed the size of the reduction required in FY 2013, but did not repeal the BCA. Unless the earlier law is overturned, the non-war defense budget will fall by a bit more than six percent from its planned level in FY 2013 and by about ten percent from previously planned levels each year between FY 2014 and FY 2021. 

The mandated cutbacks will require the Department of Defense to cut the size of the force. But with smart choices, leaders can refashion a force that is both highly capable and better suited to the new strategic focus.

In the future, a war unfolding in the Asia-Pacific region would be fought largely at sea and in the air. Future military missions thus require relatively more Navy and Air Force and less Army than the boots-on-the-ground wars of the past decade. Yet the budget plan the Department of Defense sent to Congress last year reflects only a tiny shift in resources away from the Army and into the sea and air services. The coming budget changes offer an opportunity to do more to align the budget—and thereby the forces—with the strategy.

The Army already plans to shed eight of its 45 active-duty combat brigades. To reinforce the new strategic focus, the Army should drop to about 26 active-duty brigades and remove most of its permanent presence from Europe, while retaining a small force on the Korean Peninsula.The smaller Army is in keeping with the intent of national leaders to avoid future involvement in large, drawn-out stability operations, counterinsurgency operations, and nation-building efforts. To guard against strategic surprise and ensure that the Army can respond resiliently in the event the United States finds itself in such operations despite the strategy, the Department of Defense could retain most of today’s Army National Guard and Reserve and supplement their training time.

The Air Force currently plans to eliminate six of its 60 squadrons of fighter and attack planes. Yet for the types of operations the Department of Defense envisions in the future, the bases those planes need to operate from may be under attack or absent. A sensible plan for the Air Force is to drop another eight tactical squadrons, retaining about 950 fighter and attack planes in 46 squadrons. The service could then make smaller cutbacks to the airlift, air refueling, and surveillance fleets that would provide important support during a major war in an access-challenged environment. The resulting land-based tactical fleet would keep more than enough capability to provide air support to the smaller Army in a major war where land basing is not under serious challenge.

With the money freed up by cuts to the Army and to land-based tactical air assets, the Department of Defense would have plenty of money to fund its current plans for the Navy and Marine Corps, despite the ten-percent budget cuts to the department overall.The resulting military would be better suited to the missions the nation’s leaders want to emphasize in the future. It would also still be the most capable, best equipped, and best trained armed force on the planet.

Cindy Williams is a Principal Research Scientist of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is co-author, with Gordon Adams, of Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for its Global Role and Safety at Home (Routledge 2010).