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The Delicate Balance Behind the Defense Budget Debate

September 17, 2014

By Benjamin Runkle – JINSA Program Director 

defense-spendingEarlier this week I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a private dinner at another think tank featuring former Senator Jim Talent, who in March spoke about defense budget cuts and their impact on U.S. national security on a JINSA leadership conference call. Senator Talent served on the congressionally mandated, bipartisan National Defense Panel (NDP), whose recently released report argues that the Obama administration’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review lacks the funding needed for fulfilling global military missions and that the U.S. military faces “high risk” in the world unless changes are made. Senator Talent’s remarks were intelligent and timely, and clarified some of the paradoxes of the current defense budget debates that had been troubling me for some months. (To be clear, what follows is my understanding of the problem, not a summary of Senator Talent’s remarks. Hopefully he will do another briefing for JINSA soon).

It is clear that defense spending is in decline with potentially dangerous consequences for training and readiness. Anticipating a “peace dividend” following the success of the surge and the large scale withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the Department of Defense identified $400 billion of cuts in planned spending in 2009 and 2010 plus an additional $78 billion in reductions spanning five years for the Fiscal Year 2012 budget plan. On top of those already planned cuts, the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 (a.k.a. “Sequestration”) added almost another $1 trillion in cuts to military spending spread out over a decade by imposing annual caps on the defense budget. Whereas the post-World War II average for defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is 5.5, in 2014 it represents roughly 3.4 percent of GDP, and under the BCA’s spending caps would fall to below 2.5 percent of GDP, the lowest level of funding since 1940.

These cuts have real effects regarding the size and readiness of America’s military forces. As the NDP Review notes, rather than reaching the 346-ship goal articulated by the 1993 “Bottom Up Review” as the basis for America’s post-Cold War forward-presence, the Navy is on a budgetary path to 260 ships or less. Similarly, the Air Force now fields the smallest and oldest force of combat aircraft in its history, and under the BCA its Bomber, Fighter and Surveillance forces are programmed to drawdown to approximately 50 percent of the current inventory by 2019. In 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned senators that “after ten years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940.” This prediction will likely come to pass sooner than Secretary Panetta foresaw, as the Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget called for a reduction in the active-duty Army from 520,000 to 450,000 (a 13.4 percent reduction) by 2017, although in reality the number will dip to possibly below 400,000 if the sequestration-imposed budget cuts remain in place.

These deep cuts are not inherently dangerous in and of themselves. Fiscal hawks are correct when they note that prior to 9/11 DOD had an inflation-adjusted budget of $368 billion whereas today it is $560 billion, that the Army had 481,000 soldiers versus 522,000 today, and that our DOD is still larger than the next ten militaries combined. They point to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen’s 2010 declaration that “[America's] national debt is our biggest national security threat” and argue that America can ride out the spending reductions outlined above without seeing its vital national interests jeopardized. Whether or not one agrees with this belief, it is important to acknowledge that it is a legitimate argument made by well-intentioned patriots, and should be distinguished from those who argue for reductions in defense spending because they believe the projection of American force is immoral.

The real problem with these reductions, and by extension the Fiscal hawks’ argument, is that they are disconnected to the strategic realities of the world as they stand today. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, one of the leading defense budget experts in Washington, studied the QDR and reported that DOD would need an additional $200 billion to $300 billion above the current congressional spending caps to carry out the QDR’s intended defense program. “[DOD] has not budgeted enough to fully resource its strategy,” Harrison writes, nor has it revised its strategy to fit within the budget constraints set by Congress.” In other words, the Pentagon’s spending plan simply doesn’t match its long-term strategy for addressing rising threats from Iran, Russia, and China. Moreover, the QDR was drafted before the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)’s advances in Iraq forced President Obama to commit U.S. resources to a major new military campaign in the Middle East.

Even on its own terms, the urge to balance America’s budget on the back of the military seems short-sighted. As Robert Samuelson noted in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “The benefits of U.S. defense spending are often underappreciated because they flowed silently from wars not fought and global order maintained.” Indeed, the U.S. economy is dependent upon the rules-based international order that allows the global trade and investment to flourish, an order that is bolstered by America’s international leadership. Even if one opposes establishing this leadership through actual military intervention abroad, the NDP correctly observes that “The effectiveness of America’s other tools for global influence, such as diplomacy and economic engagement, are critically intertwined with and dependent upon the perceived strength, presence, and commitment of U.S. armed forces.” Yet the NDP (which included Democratic defense stalwarts such as former SecDef William Perry and President Obama’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy) concluded that the defense cutbacks outlined above “have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve.” Thus, as important as reestablishing America’s financial solvency is, attempting to do so primarily through short-term cuts in defense spending is ultimately self-defeating, especially given that the longer Joint Force readiness is allowed to deteriorate, the more money will be required to restore it.

The current crisis in defense spending and military preparedness reflects several deeper problems with our national policymaking. As noted above, in a less hostile global environment Sequestration would perhaps be defensible, particularly if it allowed the President or the Secretary of Defense to reallocate funds within the DOD budget to better align resources with national security priorities while still remaining under the BCA’s topline caps. Instead, the BCA mandates inflexible across-the-board cuts, the assumption being these cuts would be so painful that leaders of both parties would be forced to negotiate a long-term solution to America’s chronic deficits, to include serious entitlements reform. In the 2014 federal budget, Social Security comprised 23 percent of expenditures, Medicare 14 percent, and defense spending 16.3 percent. Yet whereas Social Security and Medicare spending are increasing due to demographics, defense spending is shrinking. Unfortunately, the grand compromise envisioned at the time of the BCA’s passage seems even more remote given the current toxicity of DC’s political environment.

Moreover, as the Washington Post’s Charles Lane recently observed: “As the United States’ defense budget shrinks relative to its economy, more and more of it is destined to purposes that have little, or nothing, to do with deterring or, if necessary, winning wars in the here and now.” From 2001 to 2014 the DOD health budget more than doubled from $19 billion to $49.4 billion, with the Congressional Budget Office estimating this will rise to $64 billion in 2015, roughly 11 percent of the defense budget. Similarly, the $51 billion spent on military pensions in fiscal 2014 is projected to grow to $62 billion by 2024. In an era of constrained resources, Lane notes, every dollar spent on health and pension benefits “is a dollar we can’t spend training and equipping men and women to deal with the Islamic State, Putin, and other threats.”

These problems are not necessarily helped by the House and Senate defense authorization and appropriations committees, each of which approved bills blocking the Pentagon’s plans to save money by retiring some weapons systems or not to purchase others next year. To be sure, these committees are right to seek an increase in defense spending, and there are strong cases to be made for retaining systems such as the A-10 attack plane, refueling the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, or saving the Navy’s E/A-18G Growler electronic warfare fleet. Yet although a top-line increase in the defense budget is merited, Congress also needs to articulate the strategic justifications for such an increase in order to obtain buy-in from the American public. Simply blocking every proposed cut does little to build the consensus necessary to sustain robust defense spending, and may actually undermine it. Increasing defense spending without also articulating a broader strategic rationale prevents the badly needed prioritization between vital and secondary national interests and the subsequent determination of the force structures, weapons systems, and future technologies required to protect these interests. By simply saying “more, more, more”, the committees feed the perception that parochialism rather than strategy is driving their choices, thereby numbing the American public to the genuine threats we face and subsequent dangers stemming from unpreparedness. Although this approach may increase funding in the near-term, it also inadvertently strengthens the budget hawks’ long-term argument.

So what is the solution? I don’t claim the expertise to specify which weapons systems, force structure, or technological and investment priorities should be pursued. Instead, if I’m correct in the above diagnosis, I would suggest four practical steps that can be taken to begin to reverse the dangerous course upon which shrinking defense budgets may be leading us. First, there needs to be a serious bipartisan panel to determine – and differentiate between – America’s vital, important, and secondary interests, both on a global and regional scale. This is especially critical given that the Obama administration has not updated its National Security Strategy since 2010…before the Arab Spring, the violent disintegration of Syria and Iraq, the return of Russian revanchism, and when Osama bin Laden was still watching Pakistani soap operas in his Abbottabad compound. (In other words, a lot has changed since then). Although the NDP is correct to note that “national defense needs should drive national defense budgets, not the opposite,” it is critical that a hierarchy of interests be established in order to guide decisions on force structure, weapons procurement, technological investment, and to prevent the squandering of finite resources on secondary or tertiary interests. Indeed, even proposals for robust military spending such as the Heritage Foundation’s 2007 “Four Percent for Freedom” proposal – which subsequently served as the basis for Governor Mitt Romney’s 2012 pledge to set the “core defense spending…at a floor of 4 percent of GDP” – was explicit that “America must have the capacity to secure its vital national interests” (emphasis added), not all global interests.

Second, as the NDP concludes: “The costs of maintaining a quality All-Volunteer Force need to be reduced in order to avoid a reduction in force structure, readiness, and modernization, a decrease in benefits, or a comprised” force. Whether this comes through modest co-payment increases or means testing of working-age retirees who qualify for insurance through their post-military jobs, I don’t know. I trust that the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission will come up with better recommendations than I can. I would only propose that if it is not possible to enact a grandfather clause that protects the benefits of current retirees and servicemen and women, that any reform require a dollar-for-dollar savings match in civilian entitlement reform so that veterans do not bear the brunt of the badly need deficit reduction measures.

Finally, the NDP notes: “Current estimates show the Pentagon has roughly 20 percent excess infrastructure capacity.” Yet the House and Senate Armed Services committees both specifically refused to authorize another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round despite the substantial savings that could result. The NDP was correct to suggest a process for creating a consensus in favor of BRAC “as soon as possible,” which in addition to the savings would go a long ways toward enabling the defense authorization committees to shed the perception that they are more motivated by their districts’ narrow interests than by national strategy considerations, and thereby allow more political maneuvering room for the larger defense spending increases necessary to address current and future threats.

Although current events have inevitably drawn attention to the Obama administration’s decisions on when and how to employ military force, we should not lose sight of the critical decisions about defense spending that frame how these policy decisions are made. As Senator Talent said the other night, “defense policy is foreign policy.” Given the global upheaval that currently threaten U.S. national security, we cannot to wait to make the reforms necessary to properly train, equip, and prepare the U.S. military to address these threats.

Update on Israel’s Operation Protective Edge – August 6

August 6, 2014

Since the begining of Operation Protective Edge, 3,356 rockets have been fired at Israel. 578 were intercepted by Iron Dome and 475 landed within the Gaza Strip.

Israel has struck 4,762 terror sites struck across the Gaza Strip and eliminated 32 terror tunnels.

The photos below were taken by JINSA Program Director Ben Runkle while observing the terror tunnels with JINSA’s Generals and Admirals trip to Israel in May, 2014.

The interior of a terror tunnel.








Gaza tunnel exterior.

Terror tunnel exterior.

Hamas’ Strategy: Going Back to the Source

July 23, 2014
tags: ,

By Jonathan Ruhe – Associate Director of The Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy

Much of the press coverage of Operation Protective Edge has focused on the scramble for a ceasefire and a negotiated solution to this third war in five years between Israel and Hamas. Such reporting obscures a deeper, sober analysis of Hamas’ worldview and its ideological motivations for continuing this conflict – not necessarily on a tactical or operational level, but more fundamentally in terms of the endgame it envisions for its self-proclaimed broader struggle with Israel.

Like any organization, one of the clearest signposts for what Hamas stands for is its founding charter (click here for English-language version). Experts on the subject could pick apart the underpinnings and deeper meaning of this document, but much of its actual language is disturbingly straightforward and acerbic. More an enunciation of guiding principles than a detailed blueprint for political or military action, the 1988 charter sets a clear tone for the group’s objectives and methods. It argues for the non-negotiability of allowing a Jewish state to exist in Palestine, and that no true Muslim (according to Hamas’ definition) “can renounce [Palestine] or part of it, or abandon it or part of it” (Article 11). As part of this policy, Hamas may agree to armistices with its enemies – as it did most recently to end the November 2012 conflict – but no lasting peace is possible until Israel is eliminated.

In keeping with this uncompromising position, the charter spells out the need for armed conflict: “to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews, we have no escape for raising the banner of Jihad” (Article 15). Much of the rest of the charter follows this admonition for violence with incoherent but vitriolic anti-Semitism, saying “the Nazism of the Jews does not skip women and children,” and “the Zionist invasion … does not hesitate to take any road, or pursue all despicable and repulsive means to fulfill its desires.… Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims” (Articles 22, 28). This founding document even cites centuries-old canards like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and seeks to delegitimize Israel by claiming Jewish conspiracies drove the Balfour Declaration and World War II (as well as the French and Russian revolutions; Articles 22, 32).

These excerpts speak for themselves. By dehumanizing Jews and universalizing the supposed threat they pose, the charter condones Hamas’ indiscriminate attacks against Israel, including through terrorism. By making the conflict with Israel categorical and eschatological, it pardons Hamas’ willingness to use Gazan civilians as martyrs in this larger struggle. It has been argued that Hamas’ political and ideological works published since its charter show that the group has moderated these stances. Notably, none of these documents claim to renounce, modify or supersede the charter, unlike efforts by PLO leadership to strike parts of its constitution which were inconsistent with commitments made under the Oslo peace process. Moreover, a less malicious document, like Hamas’ 2006 electoral campaign platform, still directly echoes the charter’s goals and strategy, stating that “Palestine is Arab and Muslim land” and that armed struggle is legitimate. Looking at these primary-source materials may not explain everything, but it does provide a framework for understanding the enemy Israel faces yet again in Gaza.

What to Expect If You’re Expecting an Iran Deal

July 18, 2014

By Jonathan Ruhe – Associate Director of The Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy

This is the final countdown to the not-so-final deadline for the not-so-final deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) implemented by Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, plus Germany), Sunday is the end of the six-month interim period for negotiating a comprehensive settlement on Iran’s nuclear program. While it remains difficult to predict any actual outcome for this latest, and perhaps ultimate, round of talks, there are several important things to consider going into the weekend.

First, temper any expectations of what Iran can or will credibly offer to restrict its nuclear program as part of a final deal. Headlines in recent days mention a relaxation of Iran’s position on its enrichment capacity, but even this less extreme demand would essentially keep its existing nuclear infrastructure in place. This would leave Iran’s breakout timing – roughly 3-4 months – fundamentally untouched, even if it converted its low-enriched uranium to a less immediately-threatening form. Indeed, because this material can likely be reconverted in a matter of weeks, Iran is only offering to “freeze” something it can just as easily thaw. This is also far short of even the Obama Administration’s oft-cited benchmark for rolling back Iran’s program to at least a 6-12 month breakout timeframe. Moreover, this Iranian offer wouldn’t freeze the overall growth of its nuclear program. Centrifuges would keep spinning, as they have under JPA, expanding Iran’s stockpile in the process. In just the six months since the JPA was implemented, this has already expanded from approximately three to now four bombs’ worth of low-enriched uranium.

Overall, therefore, the ostensible compromise offered by Iran’s negotiating team is to keep the foundation of the nuclear program it expanded rapidly in the year prior to the JPA. However, even this offer came under fire publicly from hardliners in the regime’s clerical and military establishments. The administration of President Rouhani – including the Foreign Ministry team tasked with nuclear talks – is motivated at least in part by its mandate from the Iranian electorate to secure significant sanctions relief as quickly as possible. As recent comments by Supreme Leader Khamenei indicate, this incentive is not necessarily shared by the regime’s ultimate decision-makers. Even on the off chance this is merely a last-minute bargaining tactic, it cramps the ability of Iran’s negotiators to credibly agree to anything that remotely approaches an acceptable deal for the United States and its allies.

ZARIF-MEET-THE-PRESSSecond, any final deal would not actually be final. If an agreement somehow is reached by July 20, it would be historic mainly in the sense that it would recede rapidly into history. As agreed in the JPA, any of the mooted restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capabilities in the preceding paragraphs would be lifted surprisingly quickly (Iran is pressing for 3-7 years, the United States for at least 10). Furthermore, the United States would be removing sanctions over this period. Tehran would thus be primed to emerge from an arms control agreement stronger than when started, with little incentive to continue limiting its program. A brief but telling glimpse into Iran’s mindset on this issue was provided by Foreign Minister Zarif’s Meet the Press interview this week, when he called limits on Iran’s centrifuges “arbitrary restrictions.” In fact, Iran agreed to these restrictions as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), even though it now uses that treaty to justify its proclaimed “right” to enrich. Given that the JPA effectively sides with Iran on this point by saying it will be treated like any other NPT member once the comprehensive agreement expires, it is unsurprising to hear Iran suggest it will vastly expand its enrichment program, either under a final deal or beyond it.

Third, the July 20 deadline is not final either. The JPA allows for the six-month interim period to be renewed by mutual agreement, but apparently the specifics are subject to debate or confusion. The wording of the JPA itself seems to imply the interim deal would have to be renewed tout suite, potentially dragging negotiations into January 2015 while sanctions remain weakened and Iran continues producing low-enriched uranium. However, U.S. State Department officials have stated a new interim framework could be part of renewal discussions, and other officials recently said the deadline could be postponed for periods much less than six months. In effect, there might need to be new negotiations about having further negotiations.

These are not just hermeneutics. As JINSA’s Gemunder Center Iran Task Force argued in reports this past January and May, the existing interim framework is not making an acceptable final deal more likely to be achieved. A corollary is that simply renewing it would compound the disadvantages accruing to the United States. Unless the United States could somehow negotiate a new interim agreement that evaporates instead of freezes key parts of Iran’s nuclear program – a prospect made less likely by the existing interim agreement – any significant extension of the current framework thus should be viewed as cause for concern rather than a sign of progress.

Update on Israel’s Operation Protective Edge – July 15

July 15, 2014

Hamas fired 125 rockets at Israel today. 50 of them were fired while the IDF suspended strikes for six hours.

Of the total rockets fired by Hamas since the start of Operation Protective Edge, 953 of those rockets hit Israel and approximately 213 rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

The IDF has targeted over 1682 terror targets.

Here is the Iron Dome missile defense system in action:

Update on Israel’s Operation Protective Edge – July 14

July 14, 2014

Hamas has fired 100 rockets at Israel today. Since the start of the Operation Protective Edge, more than 1,000 rockets have been fired.

The IDF has targeted over 1,474 terror targets.

Hamas has attacked cities across Israel and increased their range to cities as far north as Zichron Yaakov, Binyamina, Hadera, and Haifa.

Take a look at this interesting graphic that shows the threat Israel is facing:


ISIS and the End of the Old, Old Order

June 26, 2014

By Jonathan Ruhe, Associate Director – JINSA Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy

Source: UK National Archives

Source: UK National Archives

Thumb through any of the recent articles on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and almost inevitably you’ll read something describing “the end of Sykes-Picot” and “the new Middle East order” interchangeably. To illustrate this point, detailed graphics will show you how the growth of ISIS is “redrawing the regional map” by sweeping over the lines arbitrarily penciled in nearly a century ago.

The word “order” is thrown around quite casually in most of these pieces. Though the academic debates are quite contentious, it is probably simplest to understand it as the ways in which states and other actors interact with one another regionally or globally. This is a function of many things, including the degree of economic interdependence and development between states, the ideologies their government adhere to, and the balance of military power between them. These various elements determine the stability of a regional order. For example, the interwar European order was highly unstable, in large part because it was split between states with sharply competing ideologies and economies, and because those least satisfied with the existing order were the most determined and able to amass the military might to overthrow it. Compare this to postwar stability in Western Europe, as erstwhile enemies became an economically-interdependent community of liberal democracies protected from each other and from the Soviet bloc by unchallengeable U.S. military power. These shifts were reflected in a new map of Europe after 1945, but explaining their causes goes far deeper than the lines drawn at Versailles, Saint-Germain and Trianon.

Similarly, change and instability in the Middle East is primarily about orders, not borders. At first glance, the current Middle East map largely resembles the contours sculpted by the Sykes-Picot Treaty and ensuing events around the end of World War I. The former French sphere of influence remains in the shape of Lebanon and Syria, and the British in the form of Iraq and Jordan. Moreover, like a century ago, the future status of Palestine remains unresolved.

However, the actual Sykes-Picot order was replaced decades ago. Anglo-French military and economic supremacy – which that treaty was designed to ensure, and which was also evident in British influence in the Persian Gulf – were discredited by World War II and destroyed by the Suez Crisis in 1956. This was replaced by a Cold War order centered on new actors, new ideologies and new conflicts. It loosely grouped U.S.-aligned conservative, oil-producing monarchies (and Israel, in parallel) against Soviet-backed pan-Arab socialist republics (including at times the PLO). Most major conflicts erupted along this fault line, rather than over the Sykes-Picot borders, including: the 1958 crises in Iraq and Lebanon, civil wars in North (1962-70) and South Yemen (1963-7), Israel’s wars with Egypt (1967-70, 1973) and Syria (1967, 1973, 1982), and Black September in Jordan (1970-1). The bloodiest conflict – the Iran-Iraq War (1980-8) – did not fit this pattern, yet neither was its outbreak or perpetuation symptomatic of the lines drawn by Sykes-Picot. (One casus belli – demarcating the Shatt al-Arab waterway – was a result of agreements signed both long before, and long after, Sykes-Picot.)

The precipitous collapse of the Soviet Union and rapid demolition of Iraq’s offensive military capabilities (at the time of the Gulf War, one of the largest and most battle-tested forces in the world) ushered in the current Middle East order. It is characterized first and foremost by U.S. military predominance. The United States has not hesitated to use force when it so chooses, whether for containment (Iraq in the 1990s), regime change (Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s), some gray area in between (Libya in 2011) or counterterrorism (Afghanistan, Sudan and Yemen). The mere presence of such forces in the Persian Gulf helps also maintain the free flow of energy. Moreover, Washington has sought to translate this power into diplomatic and economic spheres – to resolve many of the lingering divisions from previous orders – be it brokering peace or trying to promote reform.

The shift between these three orders cannot be understood by looking at maps. (The best counterexample is the unification of Yemen in 1990, as South Yemen had little choice but to be absorbed by the anti-Soviet North once the former’s Soviet lifeline expired.) Three successive generations of cartographers could teach their children the same basic map of the Middle East – a luxury utterly foreign to three contemporaneous generations of historians. The ongoing cantonization of Syria and its spillover to Iraq may finally give the youngest cartographer gainful employment, but the historians have been busy for several years already.

This is because ISIS is not the one credibly threatening to change the Middle East order. The shift to a new Middle East, whatever it may be, would not be in the hands of them, Iran, or anyone else alone. Almost single-handedly, the United States created and maintained the existing order, and it remains the only country capable of sustaining it – or letting it unravel. Therefore, “the new Middle East order” is not an issue of whether the Syria-Iraq border dissolves. It is an issue of whether the United States maintains the core of its decades-old mission in the region: the mutually-reinforcing assets of a credible military presence, a commitment to the security of its allies and the promotion of a stable transition to genuine democratic reform. To call the chaos in Iraq and Syria “the end of Sykes-Picot” misses the mark. Their pencil lines may at last be erased, but what’s currently at stake has very little to do with the order they established. It has everything to do with the one we established.


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