The future of national defense and the U.S. military ten years after 9/11: Perspectives from outside experts

Michael W. Pendergrass / US Navy


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  • The #Navy is as small as it has been since WWI. More reductions would both encourage adversaries and discourage allies

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  • Thomas Donnelly takes a look at the future of our national defense

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  • Over the past decade, our neighborhood has become more dangerous, particularly to the south

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Read the full text of this testimony as a PDF

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Mr. Smith, for the opportunity to testify today. I know we "outside experts" are an imperfect substitute for the former secretaries of defense whom you had planned to hear from today, but given the gravity of the moment--I believe that the future health of the U.S. armed forces and the security of the United States may well be in the hands of the members of the "Super Committee" and, generally, in the consideration of our government's finances.

"If the United States falters in its attempts at making the world a better place, if we think we can “lead from behind,” we will find it harder to make it a very safe place." -- Thomas Donnelly

That is not to say that I concur with Admiral Mike Mullen's view that our deficits and debts are the greatest security challenge we face. Quite the opposite: I am worried that our future prosperity depends first and foremost on our future security. I cannot imagine that today's global economy, itself a manifestation of American power and international leadership, will be nearly so fruitful absent the guarantees we provide. The fiscal problems of the federal government are neither the result of military spending, nor can they be cured by cutting military spending. And, of course, as a percentage of American wealth and federal spending, Pentagon budgets have been constantly cut since the 1980s. And during this administration, the Department of Defense has been the bill-payer of first and almost only choice, coughing up hundreds of billions of dollars while other agencies have been fed a diet rich in "stimulus."

But rather than focus on the finances or even the programmatic consequences of the cuts in prospect--which are severe and, should Super-Committee "sequestration" or the equivalent come to pass, debilitating to our armed forces--I would like to talk a bit about the likely strategic consequences. It has become fashionable to talk about American "decline" in the abstract, or to describe "strategic risk" in an anodyne fashion. And so I will take a quick tour of the strategic horizon, looking at particular global and regional balances of power that can only become more volatile with the diminished presence of American forces or the diminished capabilities that they may bring to bear.

I derive the framework of this tour from the work of the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, the bipartisan--nay, "nonpartisan"--effort that was essentially the creation of this committee. The panel quickly discovered that the formal process of defense strategy-making in the QDR had become bankrupt, and thus was thrown back upon its own long experience and knowledge about the persistent patterns and habits of U.S. security strategy; that is, not what we have said we would do, but what we actually have done in the course of the post-World War II decades, during the time where America has come to its position of global leadership. This I offer also as the most reliable benchmark about what would be different about the world to come, the world without American leadership.

The panel deduced four consistent U.S. national security interests:

  • The defense of the American homeland;
  • Assured access to the "commons" on the seas, in the air, in space and in "cyberspace;"
  • The preservation of a favorable balance of power across Eurasia that prevents authoritarian domination of that region; and
  • Providing for the global "common good" through such actions as humanitarian aid, development assistance, and disaster relief.

Carrying out the missions associated with securing these four fundamental interests has been the raison d'être of U.S. military forces under presidents of both parties in times of conflict, of Cold-War competition, and in moments of relative stability and peace. Taken together, they define America's role in the world. I will consider how each might be affected by a loss of American military power.

Thomas Donnelly is the director for the Center for Defense Studies at AEI.


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