Pirates prowl the high seas. Terrorists flex their muscles in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. China gets stronger. Russia grows increasingly inscrutable, and Iran and North Korea remain unpredictable.
Trying to find footing in this shifting landscape of international power plays and intrigues is the American military, which right now appears more focused on how to adjust to mandatory budget cuts because the White House and Congress were unable to reach a deal to stop them.
Perhaps lost in the debate is the bigger question: What role might American power play in the coming years?
Lost, but hardly forgotten. Around the capital, away from the political squabbles, defense experts are focusing on the tasks of U.S. forces in the near future.
“We’re at an inflection point,” said Stuart Johnson, a defense expert with the RAND Corp., a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. “Our territory, or allies’ territory, is not threatened.”
The next Quadrennial Defense Review, which sets military priorities every four years, is due a year from now, though Pentagon officials note that the current fiscal crisis has forced a delay. The 2010 review dealt with closing out the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and helping smaller nations handle local and regional issues without as much American assistance.
On all points, several defense experts declared: mission progressing, but not yet accomplished.
Here’s why: The war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is wrapping up. When international efforts in 2011 in Libya helped oust the late dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, and quashed a terrorist-led rebellion in Mali this year, the French led and the U.S. played a supporting role. American-trained forces from Chad were an important piece of the operation.
In fact, the next four years will see the smallest commitment of U.S. forces overseas in more than a decade. Troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, but the number has yet to be determined, though it will be significantly below the 68,000 now there.
But global threats have not vanished, and in the current world, a powerful military must also be a nimble military. Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon policy spokesman, said that security policy continues to require what is often called a two-war strategy.
“Our nation has important interest in multiple regions and our forces must be capable of deterring and defeating aggression by an adversary in one region even when our forces are committed to a large-scale operation elsewhere,” he wrote in an email.
America’s role and its interests still require that it maintain a substantial military force. But even in the Pentagon, leaders note that cuts in defense spending are needed. Their concerns about recent reductions have been more about the way in which they were imposed, without proper planning, and without considering their impact on forces or overall strategy.
American military spending still dwarfs that of any other nation, accounting for almost half of all global defense dollars and equaling the combined total spent by the next 13 to 19 nations, depending on the formula.
The United States spends 4.7 percent of its gross domestic product, the value of all the goods and services produced, on defense. The French spend 2.2 percent; the Germans, 1.3 percent. Even the Chinese spend only 2 percent of their GDP on defense. That means that for every dollar made in the United States, almost a nickle supports the military, while in China it’s the equivalent of 2 cents.
“How much is enough?” said Jacob Stokes, a defense expert at the centrist Center for a New American Security. “In an ideal world, you manage your risk down to zero, but that’s at enormous cost.”
Meanwhile, the strain of health care and pensions on the military’s budget is taking a greater toll.
“In the last 10 years, defense health care costs are up 83 percent, and personnel costs are up 40 percent,” Stokes said. “These costs are eating us alive.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert at the center-left Brookings Institution, said a leaner military could be as effective, as long as it innovates. He said the military could save billions of dollars, for example, by rotating crews on and off ships patrolling in vital zones, thereby reducing the overall number of ships needed to patrol a region.
More savings could result by cutting the fleet of the controversial – and expensive –experimental F-35 fighter jet in half, to about 1,200 planes.
“These sorts of changes could preserve the core elements of U.S. defense policy,” O’Hanlon said. “It’s not time to rethink everything. But there’s a ton of money to save.”
Johnson of RAND said that instead of focusing on more expensive new-generation technology for new weapons, why not use the best existing technologies? The F-35 is projected to cost about $130 million a jet, vs. the F-16, perhaps the world’s most successful fighter, which costs under $20 million a jet. Simply focusing on upgrades of the F-16 instead of building the new jet could save hundreds of billions.
Even as the United States focuses on maintaining military might, Johnson said building up the strengths of allies and partners to help deal with traditional problems should be an element of a long-term security.
“We’re really good at high-end, intel-intensive warfare,” Johnson said. “We struggle at response to instability".