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The New York Times headline describing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposed military budget said it all: “Shrink Army to Pre–World War II Level?” Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and former US senator, would cut the Army to no more than 450,000 soldiers, a smaller force than the 490,000 target already in the works. (The Army peaked at 570,000 after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the newspaper reports.) Hagel also wants to scrap a class of Air Force attack jets.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have endorsed the plan (which requires congressional approval), according to the Times. Critics argue that it might leave the nation naked before aggression. And some wonder whether the proposed cuts go far enough, as contrarian military planners over the years have said we could abolish the Marine Corps or Air Force and still protect the country.

Bostonia asked Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and history, who has advocated a new military strategy and defense cuts in his books, for his take.

Bosotnia: Do you support Hagel’s proposed budget?

Bacevich: The military budget skyrocketed in the wake of 9/11, justified in part by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever you think of those wars, one’s ended and the other one’s about to end. So it makes sense to adjust the budget accordingly. I support the notion that we need to reduce the level of our defense spending. I don’t think that this budget goes far enough, but at least it’s a move in that direction.

The burden of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan fell on the Army and Marine Corps more than the Air Force and Navy. As the strategic priority shifts from the Islamic world to East Asia, whether or not that makes sense—I’ve got some reservations about that—the most plausible contingencies in the Asia-Pacific region would tend to require naval and air forces, not a major role by ground forces. It makes sense to give fewer dollars to the Army.

These cuts are not as extensive as you’ve proposed in your books.

The Hagel budget is still predicated on the notion that power projection should remain the cornerstone of national security policy. My view is that people in Washington overstate the benefits of power projection and understate the costs and unintended consequences. I think our posture should be one of greater restraint, and we should pay more attention to simply defending the things we value most, as opposed to trying to use our muscle to bring about change in the world. The global war on terrorism has been an effort to change Iraq, Afghanistan, and it hasn’t gone well.

Andrew Bacevich, a scholar and former US Army colonel, has long advocated a smaller military shorn of responsibility for projecting power abroad. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The Times describes the military in this budget as “capable of defeating any adversary, but too small for protracted foreign occupations.”

I have no idea if we can defeat anybody. God forbid this should happen, but if you conjure up a war between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, I don’t know if we have the capability of defeating China. In all likelihood, such a war would bring about the use of nuclear weapons; it’s hard to imagine how that could produce a result that anybody could call victory. It seems to me that this budget will continue to have formidable powers to project power.

One of the concerns is that the sequester could require steeper cuts than Hagel was talking about.

Sequestration basically says cut every program by x percent. Nobody thinks that’s a good way to manage. I would argue there could be further substantial reductions in the military budget, but I don’t think sequestration is the way to exact those cuts.

Would it be a thoughtful cut to eliminate one or more branches, such as the Marine Corps or the Air Force?

If you were going to build a military establishment for the 21st century from the ground up, you wouldn’t build what we have. We have two armies, called the Army and the Marine Corps. But the Marine Corps is never going to be abolished. It’s fanciful to imagine that any president, Congress, or even the American people would permit the elimination of this redundancy.

A redundancy you have a better chance of eliminating might be in the realm of air power. I don’t think it would be, “Kill the Air Force and keep the Navy with its air power”; I think it might be, ”Let’s try to eliminate the manned bomber force.” Do we need manned bombers, when we can deliver very accurate munitions relying on missiles, and increasingly, drones? I have issues with the use of drones, but if you want capability to deliver a piece of ordnance, all I’m saying is it’s time to consider whether we need a manned bomber force. I didn’t say get rid of every manned aircraft. But we are still flying B-52s that date from basically the 1950s. I suspect you could get rid of them.

Some say a smaller military could encourage “adventurism” by enemies and would take longer to rebuild in a major war.

Given that the Army is going to be 100,000 men smaller, does that incline you toward adventurism, recognizing that the Navy and Air Force continue to be as robust as they are? I would be surprised.

The point, “smallest Army since World War II,” conjures the notion that another World War II is in the offing. It’s not. We did need a big Army in 1941 and 1942. That’s not the world in which we live. It doesn’t mean that there are no security concerns. But it’s not clear to me that any plausible concerns would lead us to say we need to have a bigger Army. It’s not as if the Hagel budget is abolishing the Army. It still ends up being a very substantial force. It’s a smaller army than the Chinese or the Russians; it’s a bigger army than all of our Western allies, and it’s probably a more capable army than the Russians and the Chinese.

But the initial congressional response suggests that this reflexive protecting of bases or weapons programs that benefit my constituents automatically kicks in.

Might Hagel’s budget pass with what worked after the Cold War—a base-closing commission?

I think he’s going to get half a loaf, and Hagel knows that. I don’t know if there’ll be another commission. Congress created this commission that proposed closings on an all-or-nothing basis. What I’ve read is that Congress today doesn’t like the notion of being presented with an all-or-nothing package, although that does seem to be a way to work around these parochial concerns.