US & China: The shape of military things to come

As America’s two problematic land wars in Asia are – finally – on course to recede into history, the US is now moving forward on the basis of an earlier budget agreement poised to make significant cuts in the military budget for the coming decade. On the other side of the Pacific, the 21st century’s rising power, China, has just announced double digit increases in its own defence spending. Meanwhile, Russia’s unexpected military moves into the Crimea Peninsula represent a new and disquieting variable in the international strategic picture. Where is all this leading? J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries to unscramble it.

The newest budget bargain in the US has meant that spending on the nation’s military is starting to recede from the levels that supported hundreds of thousands of troops, air units and a vast, complex logistics chain that stretched all the way from remote Afghan mountain ranges back to supply bases in America – and all at an enormous cost. In this new (almost) post-Afghan, post-Iraq War era, American Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, have embarked on the awkward, and increasingly unpleasant task of selling the specifics of the cuts (in addition to the aggregate budget number) to the various budget and authorisations committees of Congress that will decide the fate of this budget.

The devil – and his torments – resides in the thousands of pages of detail in this newest budget submission. It is crucial to remember, however, that unlike a parliamentary democracy, a president’s budget is simply the start of a budgetary bun fight that will involve virtually the entire Congress via its various substantive committees, as well as the House Appropriations Committee and its all-important subcommittees. In the case of a divided government, as at present with the House of Representatives in the hands of President Obama’s opponents, it is hard to imagine the actual end product being precisely what was submitted by the president – save for the fact that spending will probably not go beyond his figures because of the implications any such increases would have on other elements of the US budget.

Some of the key provisions of the new budget are almost guaranteed to provoke furious fights within Congress, and between Congress and the president, in the area of the Department of Defence. This will certainly include fights over an unpopular presidential request for a direct congressional delegation of authority that would allow the chief executive and his administration to select the bases the Pentagon believes will not be needed in the future – and to order them be closed. Many – perhaps most – congressmen will also fight efforts to save a bit of money by slowing a continuing rise in military pay and a slight trimming some personnel benefits such as in off-base housing subsidies.

Congressional opposition rises from the impacts any such cuts would have on their civilian constituents and voters. These would include any looming losses of jobs connected to military spending and base operations, local investment in military equipment production facilities, and other procurement, for example. That, in turn, puts the kind of pressure on congressmen and senators that they like least  – setting up the possibility of electoral defeats or, at the minimum, a precipitate drop in campaign contributions for their next campaign.

As a result, in a declining budgetary environment where budgetary austerity is the ostensible name of the game, the in-fighting becomes that much more intense, drawing out into the open the fighting over which weapons program to cut, which new research and development for a new weapons system to be slowed down, which bases to close, and which benefits to draw down. All of these have the potential to direct increasingly intense criticism in the direction of those members of Congress who allowed it to happen – or who supported such cuts.

The key, of course, is that congressional politics – and re-election prospects – is not generally dominated by a centralised party machinery or lock step allegiance to a president’s policies. A candidate mostly wins or loses mostly on his or her own campaigning, rather than the efforts of central party machinery and so support for various defence programs remains popular with individual congressmen and senators.

In specific terms, in the new budget submitted to Congress earlier this month, the Obama administration has set out what is called a “no-growth” budget of $495.6 billion budget. Translated into program support, this is a figure designed to modernise the US’ military forces on the crucial assumption the nation’s military will not be involved in any major ground wars with lots of infantry on the move for the foreseeable future. In this plan, the army would shrink down to around 450,000 personnel in four years time, making it the smallest-sized force since just prior to World War II. Under this budget plan, the navy would keep its eleven aircraft carrier strike groups so as to preserve its ability to project force around the world in multiple theatres. However, the air force would retire its entire fleet of those ugly, but effective A-10 “Warthog” close-air support aircraft (key to combined arms, land battle forces) as well as its fleet of those venerable U-2, high-altitude spy planes. The Marine Corps would lose around 8,000 in its personnel levels, down to a level of 182,000 active duty personnel. Still, the US defence establishment would continue to remain the largest military on the planet – in budgetary but not manpower terms. The latter honours belong to China, but more about that in a minute.

Senior Pentagon officials area already warning that budgetary circumstances could mean still steeper reductions in troop strength, bases, equipment procurement and research and development for new weapons systems, post-2015. This could occur if Congress does not prevent a return to those more draconian, mandatory, across-the-board budget reductions that would flow from the sequestration law it passed previously, that is if Congress and the president can’t agree on future budgets, going forward.

The Defence Department and the Obama administration obviously would prefer to have the flexibility to decide which elements of the military budget to cut within the overall total, rather than accept any more drastic across-the-board cut coming out of that sequestration exercise. This flexibility also allow for the wiggle room in the kinds of “horse-trading” traditional in Congress’ dealings with the defence budget. This has been true for three reasons. The first is because the budget is so large a chunk of the overall budget. The second reason is because the defence budget reaches so deeply into every congressional district, with all those installations and manufacturing plants placed around the country by defence contractors. The third, of course, is those traditional strong feelings for a strong defence posture on the part of so many congressional leaders on ideological grounds. But the imposition of the sequestration cut would squeeze out most of that flexibility, as long as the country has hopes of maintaining its planned defence posture outlined in the new budget, as well as the most recent Quadrennial Defence Review, the document outlining the country’s defence thinking, that came out with the new budget.

Specifically with reference to the Pentagon’s activities in Africa, highlighting the cross pressures between budgetary limits and continuing issues, the New York Times commented the other day, “With more than a decade of land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drawing to an end, the American military’s involvement in Niger illustrates how the Pentagon is trying to juggle two competing missions in Africa: contain the spread of Islamist militancy without having to pour a lot of soldiers or money into the region. Threats continue on the continent, but budgets are tightening at home, and the appetite to send large American armies to foreign conflicts is small. So, the Obama administration is focusing on training and advising African troops to deal with their own security threats, or providing help to European allies that have historical ties and forces in the region.”

Meanwhile, over across the Pacific, in its own annual budget, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government has announced a 12.2% increase in its military spending for the coming year, up to a level of $132 billion. That followed last year’s 10.7% increase to $114 billion, giving China the second-highest defence budget for any nation behind the United States, which spent $600.4 billion on its military last year. Some things do make straightforward, simple comparisons a bit more complex, however. These include the significant cost differential in military salaries and benefits – with the American version for such things much higher than their Chinese equivalent, on a per capita basis. Similarly, there are hidden cross-subsidies evolving out of military-run businesses in China that feed profits into to the overall military budget, without necessarily being a part of the formally stated budget totals.

In fact, in recent years, increases in China’s military budget have regularly come faster than either overall increases in government spending or the nation’s rate of economic growth and passage of the budget, once the bureaucracy has had its say, is a guarantee. The Chinese government, of course, doesn’t have the kinds of legislative tussles that are routine in the US.

At this point in China’s evolution at least, it would be unthinkable for Xi Jinping’s party – or the nation’s parliamentary equivalent – to carry out an open debate over Chinese defence spending. This has provided the an easier process for adding significant spending for an array of new military hardware and better conditions for soldiers. And, of course, China is carrying out the construction of the fully refitted former Russian aircraft carrier and development of the jet aircraft required for actual force projection that would use that carrier.

Its growth in military reach and capabilities, of course, has begun to generate concerns among some of its neighbours about how or where China might consider making use of this growing heft. Such fears might trigger some to recall Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s jibe at General Colin Powell to the effect that what was the point of all this military power, if a government never wants to use it for anything, back in the days of the Clinton administration.

These growing Chinese military budgets are coming on stream amidst the rising tensions with Japan over those uninhabited, but presumably strategic rocky specks – the Senkakus/Diayous – in the East China Sea, as well as China’s other claims such as over the Spratley and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea – and the resource rich seas that surround them. And then, of course, there have been those new Chinese passports with all of those maritime regions indicated clearly as Chinese territory in a map printed on the pages for visas.

Even as China is becoming increasingly assertive in its territorial claims, Beijing has been accusing Japan of renewed militarism and has dwelt at length, publicly, and frequently, on Japan’s role as the aggressor back during World War II. Premier Li Keqiang told his 3,000-strong audience at the National People’s Congress the other day, for example, “We will safeguard the victory of World War II and the post-war international order, and will not allow anyone to reverse the course of history.” Then, in what was supposedly an effort to tamp down regional fears about China’s new swagger, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said it was eminently reasonable for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to modernise. “Nothing to get fussy about. China’s PLA aren’t like scouts carrying spears.” Oh, right. Feel better now, all you folks out there in East Asia?

A couple of months ago, the views of most American defence analysts that the planned, smaller force structure (and the budget that supported it) would be appropriate for foreseeable challenges were obviously subject to debate, but were largely confined to duelling statements by specialists over complex issues of the proper mix of weaponry. But something happened a few weeks ago that has pushed the US defence posture into a much more partisan space. Now it seems to be encroaching on the upcoming mid-term congressional election and even edging into the Republican race for the nomination for president in 2016.

And the reason for that, of course, has been the Ukrainian crisis – and what now seems to be an effective, informal Russian protectorate over the Crimean Peninsula. This, in turn, has presented potential Republican presidential candidates – people like Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, among others – with opportunities to begin carving out a way of using Ukraine’s current agonies to pummel the Obama administration on its defence posture, as well as over its larger strategic vision, and to publicise their own more vigorous military policy ideas.

Curiously, in the midst of all this loud international discussion of Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, the Chinese have been extremely quiet over developments – apparently because regional sectarianisms are a challenge for the Chinese government itself in its hegemony over its border regions. There is, first of all, their well-known prickliness about Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s supposed separatist intentions. But there is also on-going problem with Xinjiang. Last week, China felt the first big terror attack outside Xinjiang that could be plausibly blamed on militants from that largely Moslem North-western territory. This particular event was a knife slashing attack at a train station in the Southwestern city of Kunming that killed 29 people and wounded 143 more.

Back in the US, at the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference – a conclave of right-wing political movements, consultants, political activists and politicians – this more disturbed feeling about the Crimean crisis was on obvious display in efforts by presidential candidate wannabes to find the footing that would allow a conservative would-be candidate to capture the heart of the party and thus gain the right to challenge the presumed Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton in 2016. Together with the uncertainties over China’s growing military muscle, what this newest crisis may well do is make the battle in Congress over the defence budget that much more intense, and keep the Obama administration that much more on the defensive over its defence plans.

No one is seriously predicting a new Cold War scenario, even if the view by some is that Crimea represents Russian President Vladimir Putin’s great testing of the fundamental principles – and strength – of the EU and the US in its dealing with a Russia that has again found its national purpose. What is clear, however, is that this issue has the real possibility of making defence capabilities and policy an actual element in the next two US elections – both the one this year and the one that comes two years from now. DM

Photo: A frontier soldier from the People’s Liberation Army jumps through a ring of fire as part of training in Heihe, Heilongjiang province, March 5, 2014. REUTERS/China Daily.

Read more:

  • DOD Official: Quadrennial Review’s Focus is Protecting Homeland at the Pentagon website
  • Agency-by-agency summary of Obama budget at the AP
  • China vows tough reforms, stronger defence at the AP
  • China extends run of double-digit military spending increases at the Financial Times
  • China’s parliament talks economy, budgets and smog at the Financial Times
  • Pentagon Plans to Shrink Army to Pre-World War II Level at the New York Times
  • Big budget cuts pose ‘tough, tough choices’ for Pentagon: Hagel at Reuters
  • Global Military Spending Set To Rise In 2014 at the National Public Radio website
  • U.S. Army Cuts Must Not Go Too Far, at the Brookings Institution website
  • Hagel, Dempsey to defend unpopular cuts — SASC hearing a day after release of budget and QDR at
  • China ramps up rhetoric battle with Japan at the Financial Times
  • U.S. Takes Training Role in Africa as Threats Grow and Budgets Shrink in the New York Times
  • Russia needs to defend its interests with an iron fist, a commentary by Sergey Karaganov in the Financial Times
  • Hagel: Severe Budget Cuts Will Compromise National Security at the Department of Defence website

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