How to Be a "Cheap Hawk": Reconciling National Security Imperatives with the Federal Budget Crunch

By O'Hanlon, Michael | Brookings Review, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

How to Be a "Cheap Hawk": Reconciling National Security Imperatives with the Federal Budget Crunch


O'Hanlon, Michael, Brookings Review


The strategic position of the United States today is outstanding. Not only does the world's sole superpower turn out 25 percent of global economic production, enjoy the natural defensive shields of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, possess a nuclear deterrent, and, despite growing economic interdependence with other countries, retain nearly all the basic ingredients for sustaining an advanced industrial economy on its own. It also is allied with most of the rest of the world's major industrial and economic centers, notably Japan and Western Europe. The Western political and military alliance represents three-quarters of global economic production and military spending.

America's strong strategic position and the overwhelming dominance of its military forces, together with the limited usability of those forces for addressing many types of conflict in the world today, make a strong case for further "downsizing" the U.S. military establishment. And the ongoing effort to reduce the federal budget deficit makes it nearly inevitable that, sooner or later, further defense budget cuts will be made. House Speaker Newt Gingrich signaled as much when he coined the phrase "cheap hawk" to describe his views on defense. President Clinton has requested $258 billion in defense funding for fiscal year 1996. By modifying the U.S. approach to regional warfare, revamping traditional naval and Marine forward presence operations, and recasting deployment of nuclear warheads, defense planners could save $2 billion in 1996. By 1999, when projected Clinton budgets grow to $265 billion, annual savings would be more than $20 billion. (In constant 1995 dollars, the president's plan would reduce the current $264 billion defense budget to $250 billion in 1996 and $239 billion in 1999; the alternative laid out here would cost about $220 billion a year by 1999.) Such cuts would represent only half of defense's "fair share" of a budget balancing plan that cuts all federal spending by an equal proportion.

Regional War

Under Clinton's proposal, the size and shape of most of the U.S. force structure is driven by the proclaimed need to conduct two Desert-Storm-like operations simultaneously, probably in Korea and Southwest Asia. But Desert Storm - in which a huge 550,000-person U.S. force led a coalition effort to retake Kuwait from Iraq - is not the ideal model for regional warfare. As an ancient military precept reminds us, defending land is easier than retaking it once lost. Instead of Desert Storm, security planners should try to draw lessons from Desert Shield - the initial 200,000-person deployment to defend Saudi Arabia. By focusing on rapid responsiveness and deterrence, U.S. forces could be scaled back significantly without sacrificing effectiveness. Such a strategy would enable the U.S. military to handle two large-scale crises or conflicts at once and still play a key role in a major peace enforcement operation if necessary.

Countries challenge U.S. interests in regional conflicts not because they believe they can defeat the United States in major high-intensity warfare, but because they consider a U.S. response unlikely or think they can wear down U.S. resolve. War broke out in Korea (in 1950) and in the Persian Gulf (in 1990) after remarks by American policymakers - Dean Acheson and April Glaspie - appeared to signal a lack of U.S. concern about what might transpire. Today the U.S. commitment to defend the South Korean, Saudi, and Kuwaiti states against attack can hardly be questioned. It has been demonstrated by the shedding of American blood and is sustained by the permanent presence of U.S. forces in each region. Nor can the willingness of any of those countries to accept U.S. assistance in defending their territories be doubted any longer.

Further strengthening deterrence, the Clinton administration is already moving toward a strategy of rapid responsiveness. It is prepositioning more supplies and equipment in the two theaters of acute concern, and it set a benchmark last fall for resolve and decisiveness in responding to Iraqi troop movements near Kuwait. …

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