WASHINGTON — The United States should focus its shrinking defense budget on countering Russia and China with heavy ground units and long-range weaponry rather than a pivot to the Asia-Pacific region or soft power solutions such as foreign aid, according to a study published Wednesday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The study by the nonprofit think tank overturns 10 years of U.S. defense policy, which has focused on unconventional warfare against terrorist insurgents and, more recently, a shift to the Far East.
But looming sequestration budget cuts and ballooning costs mean the Department of Defense goal from just a few years ago of having a broad and versatile military will not be possible by 2021. Instead, the U.S. will only be able to afford a military that is smaller across the board with sharply reduced capacities, according to the CSIS report “Building the 2021 Affordable Military.”
The report’s three authors spent two years creating defense budget models for CSIS that project what military planners will face when mandatory sequestration cuts end in 8 years. They say an aggressive modernization effort aimed at containing and deterring Cold War foe Russia and rising power China is the “least bad” option in the face of a money crunch.
Containing China is at the heart of the Pacific pivot, but the authors say that rather than focus so much energy on spreading naval forces throughout that region in a maritime strategy, it would be wiser to fund long-range bombers, missile technology and Army ground combat units.
“Recent events — such as China’s more aggressive actions to secure its claims to 90 percent of the South China Sea and Russia’s annexation of Crimea — certainly reinforce the idea that relations between the United States and its near-peer competitors seem more conflict-prone,” the report said.
Defense spending is set to decline by 21 percent during the next eight years because of the Budget Control Act of 2011, also known as sequestration. Compounding the problem is the fact that by 2021, 15 percent more of the budget will be eaten up by increased personnel and other costs, the think tank found.
The most prudent strategy in the next decade — preparing for a conventional war with another great power — would require the U.S. in 2021 to cut $10 billion in today’s dollars by reducing troop numbers and use that money instead to boost weapons and equipment by $3 billion, and increase science and technology spending by 50 percent, according to the report.
Spending would increase for long-range bombers, attack subs, nuclear modernization, national missile defense, aerial and space intelligence surveillance reconnaissance, as well as more Army heavy brigade combat teams for “tripwire” deployments to counter Russia and China.
“This aggressive investment in modernization is aimed at sustaining the U.S. high-tech edge versus Russia and China,” the authors wrote.
The strategy also would eliminate some surface forces and aircraft due to lack of money.
There would be fewer carriers, littoral combat ships and guided-missile destroyers. Cuts would also claim F-35C jets and P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare aircraft, as well as Air Force fighters seen as vulnerable to area-denial weapons systems being developed by China in the Pacific.
Meanwhile, the military’s ongoing Asia-Pacific pivot after the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — a key initiative of the Obama administration — should fall to the wayside, the report said.
The strategy would rely heavily on naval forces, rather than Army ground forces and missile technology, as a maritime buffer specifically against rising Chinese military might. Russia would recede from the forefront.
It would require more carriers, littoral combat ships and destroyers as Marine regiments and aviation. Spending on Army heavy brigade combat teams, Air Force fighters, nuclear weapons and missile defense would be reduced.
But cost alone may not be the biggest obstacle. Even under current defense funding, the U.S. is having difficulty focusing on the shift and convincing regional allies of its commitment, the report found.
“The United States is a global power with global interests. A regional policy, even one as important as the Asia-Pacific, is too difficult to execute,” it said.
A third strategy option for 2021 would take $25 billion in today’s dollars from the defense modernization budget and plow it into foreign aid and nimble military units.
The 25 percent increase over current levels of development aid would go to the Millennium Challenge Corporation foreign aid agency created by Congress in 2004, the international Adaptation Fund climate change aid agency, Internet freedom activities, and other foreign assistance.
The military side of the equation would rely “more on a U.S. global presence provided by Army light infantry and special operations forces to engage in indirect activities,” according to the report.
But the strategy is “too optimistic” in light of complex security challenges in Iran, Syria, Mali, Pakistan and elsewhere in the world, the report concluded.
“The effectiveness of an increased reliance on soft power … to address the underlying social and economic causes of political turmoil is far from clear,” it said.
The CSIS report is likely to draw attention from Congress as it works on the coming year’s defense budget.
Capitol Hill is largely responsible for the cuts forcing the hard defense choices. Mandatory budget reductions were triggered two years ago after lawmakers could not strike a deal on reducing the federal deficit.
Congress has also refused so far this year to stem rising costs of personnel, health care, acquisitions, and operations and maintenance, which the report found are putting added pressure on defense.
For example, military personnel costs have increased 90 percent since 9/11 while the number of troops has increased by about 3 percent and that trend is likely to continue, according to the DOD.
Cuts to rein in the ballooning expenses were requested by the department in its annual budget proposal and supported by top military brass.