Seen from Washington, the main threat to America’s armed forces is to be found not in Helmand or Hainan but in the automatic budget cuts of the sequester. This roughly doubles the savings that will have to come from the Pentagon’s budget in the next nine years, to about $1 trillion.
During the summer Chuck Hagel, the defence secretary, mapped out a possible first round of cuts: shrinking the army by up to 110,000 troops from its current target of 490,000; and losing possibly two of ten aircraft-carriers, as well as bombers and transport aircraft. The alternative, Mr Hagel said, was to cut spending on modernisation.
Cut, but not to the quick
Inevitably, the proposed cuts have stirred up a hornets’ nest. But just how bad are they? In the ten years to 2011, when America was at war, pay and benefits for the army increased by 57% in real terms. The number of support staff, too, grew rapidly. Because Congress will not touch this large and politically sensitive part of the budget, the cuts must be borne elsewhere.
That is a foolish way to run an army. However, even without the sequester, much of the enormous build-up in spending after the attacks of September 11th 2001 should be going into reverse. Moreover, America’s military might will remain unchallenged, even after the cuts. Just after Mr Hagel set out his ideas, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress about the Pentagon’s revised plans for potential wars around the world. Large invasions may be out, but it can draw on quick-reaction forces and stealth air power and ships. And not only does it outspend most of the rest of the world combined on conventional defence (see chart 3), it also has a formidable nuclear arsenal and the wherewithal for cyber-warfare.