In Washington the season of budget cuts is in full blossom. Unfortunately, leaders of both political parties may soon agree to further slash the defense budget. Yet this comes as the military is fighting an ongoing war against jihadi terrorists while also confronting a China that is using its growing military power more aggressively. The prescription should be more, not less, U.S. military power. It is easy to see how cuts will save today, but difficult to assess how much cuts will cost tomorrow. In Asia, the price will be unacceptably high.
China's military rise is changing the balance of power in its neighborhood. While Washington debates how to cut America's military, China continues to spend generously on defense. Last year, the Obama administration took the first steps in a $400 billion defense spending cut, ending several crucial programs. The White House has now asked for another $400 billion in cuts. China, meanwhile, has averaged 10% annual spending increases for more than 20 years. As former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown once said of the Soviets, "When we build, they build; when we cut, they build."
If America skimps on its military, China will become the regional hegemon.
Beijing has the most ambitious missile program in the world--including an anti-ship ballistic missile that threatens U.S. aircraft carriers. China is also investing heavily in submarines and surface ships; stealthy fighter aircraft; and space and cyber-warfare capabilities. The equation budget cutters should ponder is that China's aggressive build-up plus American defense cuts equals Asian instability.
That instability could have far-reaching consequences. America's military has ensured peace and stability in the region, made the seas safe for trade and transit, provided Asians with the political space to prosper, and guaranteed that no hostile power would again use the Pacific as an avenue of approach for an attack on American soil.
Indeed, there would be no possibility of an "Asian Century" absent U.S. power. The international trade that has fueled the region's economic boom is dependent upon the immeasurable strategic tasks undertaken by the U.S. military--from keeping safe maritime shipping to reassuring friends and allies while deterring China and North Korea. The value of these daily operations is hard to price in a budget.
Military planners understand this. The Defense Department is developing a new military concept called AirSea Battle, which would bolster cooperation between the Navy and Air Force in ways that are particularly relevant for meeting the challenge of a rising China.
This is an expensive undertaking. The U.S. military will require next-generation bombers; large numbers of attack submarines; many fifth-generation fighters and refueling tankers; more and better surface ships; and long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. AirSea Battle requires more defense investment, not budget cuts.
Spending cuts will further encumber the Navy's already withering fleet, which plays a central role in AirSea Battle. The Navy says it needs 328 ships compared to the current 284, but that goal remains out of reach. Further starving the already under-resourced Navy guarantees that the Navy will never have the number of ships it needs.
The nuclear attack submarine fleet, for example, will certainly come under additional strain. The Navy's stated requirement is 48 such boats, a number that will increase with the demands of AirSea Battle. Yet if the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan does not receive additional funding the Navy will have substantially fewer than the 48 subs it needs. There is also no provision in the plan for surging production to meet China's own growing sub acquisitions. China has fielded on average more than two subs annually for 16 years. It now has more than 60 attack subs in its fleet, with more in the pipeline. And unlike the U.S., which spreads its fleet among the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, China operates all of its boats in Asia.
The long-term costs of defense cuts are not worth the short-term savings. If America skimps on its military, China will become the regional hegemon. One need only look to Beijing's recent behavior to imagine an Asia under Chinese domination. China has been bullying its neighbors over disputed claims in the South and East China Seas, while continuing an arms build-up across from Taiwan.
In response allies and friends are asking for greater American presence--the U.S. military is obliging, but is doing more with less. Such strategic insolvency is unsustainable. Should American military power further erode, the region would face one of two unhappy futures. China could successfully pacify its neighbors and dominate Asia. America would thus fail to maintain a longstanding objective--the prevention of a hostile hegemon dominating Asia.
Alternatively, Asian countries might find ways to resist Chinese pressure themselves. In this scenario, countries would arm to the teeth and form ever-shifting constellations of power. Many would develop weapons of mass destruction. Asia would look something like Europe did before World War I--but with nuclear weapons. Confronting either future tomorrow could be more expensive than properly resourcing our Pacific forces today.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI. Michael Mazza is a senior research assistant at AEI.