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Barack Obama: Cutter in Chief

January 12, 2012

If there is one simple rule that all Democrats need to abide by in an election year it is this: Thou shalt not appear weak on national security. It was a shock therefore, when President Obama announced cuts of $487 billion over ten years to the US defence budget, just eleven months before polling day.

Now, Obama doesn’t need to seek re-nomination and he can stand back and smile as the Republican go through the motions of 50 primaries to eventually select the one guy who has been the front-runner all along. However, it seems very strange for a Democrat to cut defence expenditure in election year and thereby open himself up to the easy accusation of being soft on defence and anti-military, especially when he has never served in any capacity.

The president has made references to fiscal prudence to cut federal expenditure and the national debt, currently running at eye watering levels. But this money will not be saved or used to pay of the debt; instead it will almost certainly be redistributed and spent on domestic programmes. The cuts announced so far amount to a 10-15% cut in the Army and Marine Corps personnel, on the basis that people and their families are expensive. Rather than investing in manpower, 80,000 troops will be cut over ten years, along with what is being referred to as ‘outdated air systems.’ The growth area will be in non-manned technology. That’s drones for the uninitiated.

There are international implications for all of this, since the UK is awaiting delivery of US fighter jets to launch from our as yet un-built aircraft carrier(s). If these get axed as part of the cuts, then the already laughable series of events surrounding the deployment of the UK’s carrier will only continue, as it will be an aircraft carrier with no aircraft to deploy, making it rather more difficult for Britannia to lay any claim to rule the waves.

It is vital to place these cuts in context. The US is not packing up its many tents and withdrawing to a fortress America. This is not Ron Paul’s wildest dream come true, after all. In ten years, after these cuts, the US defence budget will still be larger than that inherited by President Obama and will still be larger than the next ten largest defence spending nations combined. Thankfully (!?) the budget will increase with inflation. So that’s ok!

What is likely to be particularly contentious is the new focus of US foreign policy. Since he arrived in the White House, there has been speculation that Obama was seeking to focus on Asia and the Pacific. In the past three years we have seen his efforts to do so bear little fruit, with what appeared to be a decision to recognise the inevitable and to continue the Special Relationships America enjoys in Europe. However, this announcement makes it clear that the United States intends to refocus its efforts on the Pacific and on the challenges it faces in that region.

It is easy to forget here in Europe that the US is a Pacific power not just an Atlantic power and that it is equally clear that current threat predictions stem from the east, not the west. But this heavy-handed declaration of intent is tantamount to sabre rattling. One wonders when American leaders will wake up to the way in which they un-necessarily provoke negative reactions in other nations and their respective leaders?

There is no doubt that after a decade’s worth of increased defence expenditure caused by the attacks of September 11 a reversion to peacetime expenditure was inevitable and logical, but the timing of this announcement raises a serious question as to whether this is driven by defence needs or budgetary necessity? Also, announcing cuts whilst throwing down the gauntlet to Iran and China and presumably North Korea appears to be contradictory, and risks inflaming the situation. Targeting the Asia-Pacific region and cyber warfare is a red flag in Beijing and a direct challenge to the developing Chinese navy and their anti-ship weaponry.

The cuts also end the Pentagon’s much vaunted ‘two war concept,’ which was being employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the switch to the Pacific and away from Europe, we had better hope that this is the right decision and that no historic powers decide to rearm in the face of growing austerity at home. The decision to reduce manpower is also intriguing considering the clearly stated focus on the emerging threat from China. Figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies reveal that in 2010 Chinese had 2,285,00 active service personnel, 800,000 reservists and 1,500,000 paramilitary, making a total Chinese military capacity of 4,585,000. The same figures for the United States reveal 1,468,363 active servicemen, 1,458,500 reservists and 11,035 paramilitary, making a total of 2,937,899. Go do the math. The US better hope that when it comes time for a conflict in the Pacific, its much vaunted unmanned aerial technology is able to prevent China from deploying its army of over 4 and a half million.

Of course, history reveals that such cuts will be reversed if hostilities were to break out, with a massive ramp up in defence expenditure. The risk is that this would be a reflexive action that could be too little too late. The president announced the cuts in the press briefing room at the Pentagon, the first time that this has happened, whilst surrounded by his top brass. Obama is clearly determined to put his stamp in the announcement and demonstrate the support he has in the chain of command. Only time will tell if those who are saluting him today will be voting for Mitt Romney in November.

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