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Posted at 8:37 a.m. on July 2, 2014
It’s going to get ugly for the defense budget in the coming years, by the reckoning of a group of Center for Strategic and International Studies experts. So, they asked, why not plan for “the least bad” option that the Pentagon will be able afford in 2021?
The CSIS group has been paying a lot of attention in the past couple years to the subject of defense drawdown, and Wednesday it will release its latest report within the project, which proposes that the Defense Department needs to start acknowledging the 2011 budget caps and plan accordingly. Examining a range of options, it concluded that preparing for ongoing conflict with Russia and China is the best option, not that it’s a great one.
The thinking, starting from the notion that the Pentagon’s base budget will fall 21 percent from its fiscal 2012 peak and that the power of each DOD dollar spent will also drop by 2021:
The “cost-capped” approach accepts this harsh fiscal reality as a given and attempts to maximize the military utility of a force that is affordable with significantly fewer resources. The cost-capped approach is not very satisfying for strategists, who prefer to define a strategy that fits the strategic context and then ask “how much is enough?” In contrast, the cost-capped approach asks first “how much is affordable” and then develops alternative “strategies” for spending capped resources. Whether that is “enough” or sufficient for the strategic realities of 2020 and beyond is neither known nor assumed.
The group looked at four different options — Baseline Force, Asia-Pacific Rebalance, Great Power Conflict and Global Political-Economic-Military Competition — and assessed that the Great Power Conflict option was the one with the best tradeoffs. “We believe that a 2021 Affordable Military that is focused on the growing conflict with China and Russia is the ‘least bad’ option for this punishing fiscal context of fewer and weaker defense dollars,” the report states.
Choosing Option 3 as the recommended 2021 Affordable Military carries the risk of being a self-fulfilling prophecy, as an American foreign policy based on the assumption that China and Russia are competitors, not potential “strategic partners” or “responsible stakeholders,” could cause the Chinese and Russians to act in the manner being assumed by a more assertive and nationalistic United States. In our judgment, the more accurate characterization is the exact opposite, namely, it has been China’s rising assertiveness and Russia’s increasingly anti-Western stance that is leading the United States to abandon its efforts to “shape” Russia’s decline from its Cold War superpower status and the rise of China to great power status. The self-fulfilling prophecy belongs to China and Russia, as it is their behavior that leads us to conclude that the Great Power Conflict option is a prudent choice for the United States. The 2021 Affordable Military that is most likely to secure U.S. interests in an increasingly conflict-prone security environment is one that is optimized (within very rigid cost constraints) for great power conflict.
CSIS is holding a news conference Wednesday morning to discuss the report. (Note: For a critique of a previous phase of the project, read here.)