10 January 2012

Defense Cuts in Historical Perspective

What does post-war shrinkage look like? And will post-GWOT shrinkage be any worse than historical post-war shrinkages? The CFR notes...

Last summer, defense spending was slashed by $487 billion over 10 years. Then, right before Thanksgiving, a special committee of Congress failed to agree on $1.2 trillion in alternative cuts, which opened the way to another $500 billion or so in defense cuts. Hundreds of billions more in so-called emergency funding will be gone as we wind down operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In all, the defense budget could shrink by 31% over the next decade, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. That compares with cuts of 53% after the Korean War, 26% after the Vietnam War and 34% after the Cold War.

That doesn't sound too far off-line for recent history, but let's go back further...

After the American Revolution, the military plummeted from 35,000 men in 1778 to 10,000 by 1800. As a result, the nascent republic had to scramble to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, fight a quasi-war with France, repress the Barbary pirates and, most spectacularly, defend the new national capital from British attack in the War of 1812. The burning of the White House stands as melancholy testimony to our military unpreparedness.

Yet we made the same mistake after the Civil War. The armed forces fell from more than 1 million men in 1865 to merely 50,000 in 1870. Luckily we did not face a foreign attack in the postwar decades. But we did face the challenge of Reconstruction. Its failure was made inevitable by Washington's inability (or unwillingness) to station enough federal troops in the South to repress the Ku Klux Klan. By 1876, all federal troops were withdrawn and the era of Jim Crow had begun.

In fact, the raw numbers, as summarized by The Economist, look like this:

Revolutionary war: 71%
Civil war: 95%
First world war: 91%
Second world war: 88%
Korean war: 31%
Vietnam war: 43%
Cold war: 38%

So let's face it, comparatively, 31% might not be the worst thing to happen to US defense...

What do you guys think? Is 31% too much? Too little? How does 31% track with strategic requirements?

By: Brant


besilarius said...

When George C. Marshall returned to Defense from his stint at the State Department, he told Forrest Poague that he was in utter shock at the troop levels.
He had been in China and the Far East (no one could have saved Chiang Kai Shek and his cronies, but Marshall tried.)So when he finally got the details on DOD, he just about had a heart attack.
In his words, "there was nothing there."

Anonymous said...

The percentages after WWII and Vietnam seem like a lot, but when you had many millions more people in uniform during those conflicts cutting 30% is quite a bit. I believe the USAF had around 3 million people during Vietnam and now is at 600,000 (counting civilians) so that trimming of 30% is significant.