Analysis: Trimming US military might

Budget cuts force the US secretary of defence to slash troop levels to pre-World War II levels.

US defence spending peaked in 2009 at $711bn - 10 times more than China spent that year [AFP]

With tensions running high between the US and Russia over the latter’s military intervention in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has advised his Russian counterparts to be cautious.

“Let’s keep the tensions down, let’s see no provocative actions by anyone. This is a time for very cool, wise leadership,” Hagel said.

But a very different, more combative US defence secretary took the podium a week earlier at the Pentagon. That time, his words weren’t directed at a foreign power, but at his own government. On February 25, Chuck Hagel unveiled the Pentagon’s budgetary plans for 2015, wading into an ongoing struggle with the US Congress over curbing defence spending by drastically cutting the size of the military.

“On March 1, 2013 – one year ago this week – steep and abrupt automatic spending cuts were imposed on the department of defence and other agencies across the government under the mechanism of sequestration,” said Hagel. “The reality of reduced resources requires some difficult choices.”

The past decade has seen gigantic Pentagon budgets: In 2011, US defence spending reached $711bn, an amount several times bigger than the comparable figure for China, the world’s second-biggest military spender. A majority of US military spending went towards maintaining large troop presences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hagel laid out a meticulous plan to cut troop numbers from 450,000 to 420,000 by 2016, bringing overall troop numbers down to levels last seen before World War II. 

Ex-Pentagon chief discusses planned cutbacks

“I think Secretary Hagel is trying to make the best of a very difficult situation,” said former Defense Secretary William Cohen to Al Jazeera, referring to the automatic spending cuts, known as “sequestration”, imposed on the US budget after legislators failed to agree on deficit reduction measures by the end of 2012. “This has a devastating impact across the board, without any regard to the overall military strategy.”

Pricey weapons

Hagel’s announcement came following years of haggling over the size of the US military. Since 9/11, US military strategists have preferred to operate a cheaper fleet of drones to hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, instead of bulkier, more expensive options.

The Joint Strike Fighter, better known as the F-35, is one such expensive weapon. The programme has been 11 years in the making and has already cost American taxpayers close to $400bn, running 70 percent over budget.

The Pentagon has plans to induct more than 2,400 F-35 fighter jets into the military, but has earmarked funds for only 35 of the controversial planes in next year’s budget. “Almost every hardware programme the Pentagon buys costs twice as much and takes twice as long to deliver – and it gives you about half the performance you thought you were going to get in the beginning,” said Gordon Adams, a defence budget analyst at the Stimson Center.

Official figures reveal that in 2008, when American troop numbers peaked in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US had spent more than $100bn to maintain around 187,900 soldiers in both conflicts that year – an average of about $532,000 per soldier deployed. More than two million US soldiers have been deployed in wars since 2001.

In their budget estimates to Congress, Pentagon officials claimed $130,000 as the annual cost of stationing one US soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The cost included combat pay, travel to the battle front and the incremental cost to house and feed one soldier in theatre,” said former Pentagon and Rand Corporation defence analyst Stuart E Johnson. In measuring the cost of war, Johnson said, “the Pentagon repeatedly singled out this figure to base their assumptions on war financing”.

Ambitious estimates

In trying to quantify costs, Pentagon officials insisted on a “number value” that at least gave the illusion of accountability. “When it comes to funding wars, illusions matter,” said Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst with the Cato Institute. “As the war goals were recklessly ambitious, so too was spending. The real cost of war will start to emerge once the wars end.”

“The numbers are an illusion,” said David Gold, a professor at the New School and co-founder of the Study Group on the Economics of Security. “The department of defence reached conflicting estimates by a complex process of divisions to keep the estimates low.”

US plans to shrink its army and cut warplanes

But why would officials want to underestimate total costs? Wouldn’t the urge be to exaggerate demands to get more funding?

Gold explains that by systematically underestimating costs, administrations have been more easily able to win Congressional approval for defence spending. “Because of the politics of budgets, it’s easier to get funding through the US Congress if budgets are lower.”

Furthermore, estimates of the cost of war seldom account for the investments made to buy peace. US aid money to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – the three major foreign aid recipients since 9/11 – run in the tens of billions of dollars, but are not included in war funding estimates. Instead, they are included in other pieces of legislation or are hidden in discretionary spending clauses and amendments.

What’s the ‘real cost’?

A 2013 report by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic Studies put the cost of funding the war in Afghanistan at $443.12bn up to 2011. But $198bn was released in 2012 alone. “It is a clear case of too much, too late,” said the report. “The surge in aid spending creates the irony that the maximum actual cash flow disbursements is only occurring now that transition is in place and major cuts are coming between 2012 and 2014.”

The Pentagon has already appropriated $1tn from US taxpayers to fund a decade of wars. But Columbia professor and Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz has controversially argued that the true figure is “much more like $5tn”.

The actual number, said Gold, remains elusive because of the flawed way in which military funding is appropriated and spent. “The real cost can never be truly determined.”

Source: Al Jazeera