Military Officer | 4.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd
It’s a paradoxical truth that military readiness can
keep the peace. The Romans had a phrase for it: Si vis pacem, para
bellum. “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”
President Ronald Reagan
called it “peace through strength.” Although Reagan may be the president most
closely associated with “peace through strength,” he was by no means the first.
Many of America’s leaders have recognized the peace-through-strength doctrine
as the best way to protect U.S. interests and deter war.
“There is nothing so likely to
produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy,” President George
Washington said in 1782, putting it more genteelly than the Romans.[i]
desire peace,” President Theodore Roosevelt declared more than a century
later. “And the surest way of obtaining it is to
show that we are not afraid of war.”[ii]TR famously said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” For TR, the big stick
was the U.S. Navy, which he wielded adroitly to serve U.S. interests and
prevent wars in the Americas, the Pacific and the Mediterranean.
The men who crafted the West’s blueprint for
the Cold War returned to the timeless lessons earlier generations had
Winston Churchill called for “defense through
deterrents.”[iii]President Harry Truman praised NATO as “an integrated international force whose
object is to maintain peace through strength…we devoutly pray that our present
course of action will succeed and maintain peace without war.”[iv]
“The vital element in keeping the peace is
our military establishment,” explained President Dwight Eisenhower, one of
America’s warrior-presidents. “Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant
action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk its own
Outlining “a program to
achieve peace through strength,” President John Kennedy vowed to “strengthen our military power to the point
where no aggressor will dare attack, now or in the future.”[vi]
Reagan brought America’s “long, twilight struggle”
to an end by noting in his matter-of-fact way, “None of the four wars in my
lifetime came about because we were too strong…our military strength is a
prerequisite for peace.”[vii]
These leaders understood that peace through strength works in two important
First, at its best, it prevents war by deterring the enemy.
Critics of defense spending argue that a doctrine of peace
through strength is not worth the cost. In truth, waging war is far more costly
than maintaining a military capable of deterring war. As Washington observed in
his farewell address, “Timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently
prevent much greater disbursements to repel it.”[viii]
Just compare military allocations, as a percentage of GDP,
during times of war and times of peace:
- In the eight years before
entering World War I, the United States devoted an average of 0.7 percent
of GDP to national defense; during the war, U.S. defense spending spiked
to 16.1 percent of GDP.[ix]
- In the decade before
entering World War II, the United States spent an average of 1.1 percent
of its GDP on the military annually; during the war, the U.S. diverted an
average of 27 percent of GDP to the military annually, spending almost 38
percent of GDP on defense in 1944 alone.[x]
- Applying the lessons of
deterrence, Cold War-era presidents spent an average of 7 percent of GDP
on defense, sometimes much more, to keep the Red Army at bay.[xi]
We can never know what might have been had the United States
and its closest allies embraced the peace-through-strength doctrine before
Munich and Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor. But in the middle of World War II,
Churchill offered his opinion: “If we had kept together after the last war, if
we had taken common measures for our safety, this renewal of the curse need
never have fallen upon us.”[xii]
In his book “The World America Made,” Robert Kagan explains
how “America’s most important role has been to dampen and deter the normal tendencies
of other great powers…to compete and jostle with one another in ways that
historically have led to war.” This role has depended on America’s military
might. “There is no better recipe for great-power peace,” Kagan concludes, “than
certainty about who holds the upper hand.”[xiii]
Regrettably, America is dealing away that upper hand, as a
strange-bedfellow alliance of deficit hawks determined to cut federal spending
and isolationists determined to shrink the U.S. military’s reach try to do the
impossible: balance the budget on the back of the military.
It’s impossible because, as
then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained in 2011, “The defense budget…is
not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes.” He noted that in 1961 defense spending
consumed half the federal budget, while it accounted for 9 percent of U.S. GDP.
Today, defense spending is under 15 percent of the federal budget and 3.5
percent of GDP (and falling).[xiv] In fact, we could
eliminate the entire defense budget and turn the Pentagon into a mega-mall, and
yet we would still face a budget deficit—and wouldn’t even be putting a dent into
the $17-trillion debt.
The nearly $1 trillion in cuts to projected defense spending
between now and 2021—$500 billion in sequester cuts plus $487 billion in cuts
ordered in 2010[xv]—might
make sense if peace were breaking out around the world. But we know the very
opposite to be true.
The Middle East is on fire; Egypt is in a dangerous spiral
of re-revolution; al Qaeda is reconstituting in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and
Syria; North Korea is rattling nuclear sabers; Iran is racing ahead with its
own nuclear-weapons program. And these, it could be argued, aren’t even our
principal worries. As the U.S. declaws itself, China’s military-related
spending skyrocketed from $20 billion in 2002 to around $180 billion a decade
unparalleled jump in military spending on a percentage basis. Russia’s military
spending spiked 25 percent in 2012, and Moscow has unveiled plans for 2,300 new
tanks, 600 new warplanes and 28 new submarines in the next 10 years.[xvii]
Given the reservoir of U.S.
military capacity, the balance of power would still seem to favor the United
States, even after sequestration takes its toll—until one considers that
America’s security commitments are spread around the globe, while Russia’s and
China’s are concentrated in their neighborhoods. Indeed, with a nod to
TR, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) worries
Washington may be “out-sticked” by Beijing’s anti-ship capability.[xviii]
Worryingly, sequestration is
more than just another postwar drawdown.
As former Defense Secretary
Leon Panetta ominously detailed before the guillotine fell,
sequestration “would turn America from a
first-rate power into a second-rate power,” yielding “the smallest ground
force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air
Force in its history.”[xix] Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey added that
after sequestration, “We wouldn’t be the global power that we know ourselves to
Today, we can see why they
spoke in such dire terms.
documents leaked to USA Today indicate
sequestration will produce an Army at “high risk to meet even one major war.”[xxi]Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno
bluntly warns of “significant problems” if troops are deployed for combat
post-sequestration. “They are not going to be trained properly. That means when
they go, it is going to take them longer to do it. They might have more
to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, “We
are beyond muscle” and will soon “cut into bone.”[xxiii]If the sequester remains in place without substantive modification, the
active-duty Army will shrink to between 380,000 and 450,000; the Marines will
shrink to between 150,000 and 175,000.[xxiv]Although the Ryan-Murray budget compromise (which returns $22.5 billion to the military in 2014 and $9 billion in 2015)[xxv] is a step in the right direction, it does not
amount to much of a modification given sequestration’s trillion-dollar toll.
Nor does it restore defense spending to pre-sequester levels.
- The Air Force has
announced plans to reduce its fleet by 286 planes.[xxvi]Sequestration has forced the Air Force to ground
33 squadrons and cancel or scale back exercises like Red Flag-Alaska, depriving pilots of time in the cockpit, the key to
ensuring readiness and proficiency.[xxvii]
- At the height of
Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships.[xxviii]Today’s fleet numbers 285 ships. If
sequestration continues to eat through the military, the Navy will be forced to
mothball 38 more ships and may have to cut the carrier fleet down to just eight
or nine flat-tops.[xxix]Already, the Navy has stretched the “build time” of new aircraft carriers
from five to seven years.[xxx]
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rightly argues that sequestration
casts a “shadow of uncertainty”[xxxi]across the Pentagon and around the world, where U.S. military strength is often
the difference between stability and chaos.
That brings us to the second benefit of peace through strength.
Churchill conceded that “The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics.”[xxxii]Terror groups like al Qaeda and Hezbollah, radicalized regimes like Iran, and
death-wish dictators like Saddam Hussein may be the sort of enemies that cannot
even when the peace-through-strength strategy fails to deter such enemies, it
equips the United States with the capacity to defeat them rapidly and return to
the status quo. Put another way, the peace-through-strength doctrine
gives the commander-in-chief a toolbox full of resources that can be used in several
ways. This is the secondary benefit of peace through strength, and it
has paid dividends in the post-Cold War era—from Kuwait and Kosovo to
Afghanistan and Abbottabad.
Indeed, it pays to recall what the pre-sequestration military achieved: it shielded
the homeland from another 9/11; eviscerated al Qaeda and eliminated bin Laden; toppled
terror regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya; protected allies in Europe and
the Pacific; deterred North Korea, China and Russia; kept the Strait of Hormuz,
Gulf of Aden and South China Sea open; and rushed aid to Japan, Sumatra, Haiti
and the Philippines. Yet Typhoon Haiyan may mark the end of the era of global
multitasking for the U.S. military. As the toolbox is emptied, the military
will be hard pressed to continue serving as civilization’s first-responder and
last line of defense.
In other words, the value of ready
brigades of highly-motivated, highly-trained troops; squadrons of stealth
bombers, heavy-lift transports and air-superiority fighters; a fleet of
super-carriers, amphib assets and missile-armed subs; a constellation of
satellites; and a full quiver of missile defenses is in their capacity not only
to deter enemies, but to project stability and buttress the liberal global order
forged after World War II—an order that benefits America more than any other
But fewer troops, fewer ships, fewer planes, less
modernization and less training translate into slower reflexes, a shorter reach
and a smaller role for the United States. As Dempsey puts it, the
post-sequestration Pentagon will “be providing
a lot fewer options and a lot less capacity.”[xxxiii]
To avoid that, we must recognize that a well-equipped military is not a
liability to cut but an asset to nurture.
[i] Washington, 1782; George Washington, "Maxims of
Washington: Political, Social, Moral, and Religious," John Schroeder, ed.,
[ii] Roosevelt, 1903; http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=97733#axzz2jEykLGwu.
[iii] Churchill, 1955; http://www.winstonchurchill.org/learn/speeches/speeches-of-winston-churchill/102-never-despair.
[iv] Truman, 1951; http://trumanlibrary.org/publicpapers/viewpapers.php?pid=281.
[v] Eisenhower, 1961; http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/ike.htm.
[vi] Kennedy, 1960; http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25685#axzz2jEykLGwu
[vii] Reagan, 1982 and 1984; http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=40290#axzz2jEykLGwu; http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2002/06/reagans-westminster-speech.
[viii] Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796; http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp
[ix] CRS, National Defense Outlays as a Percentage of
GNP/GDP, FY1910-2003, 1998.
[xii] Churchill’s Address to Congress, December 26, 1941.
[xiii] Kagan, pp.50 and 90.
[xvi] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to
Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of
China, 2012, p.6.
[xvii]http://www.voanews.com/content/as-russias-presidential-vote-nears-putin-vows-big-military-spending-hike-140297933/152437.html ; Charles Clover, “Russia: A Return to Arms,”
Financial Times, October 1, 2013.
[xx] Quoted in Adam Entous, “Top military officer: U.S. can
stay global power despite threatened cuts,” Wall Street Journal, March 28,
[xxi] Tom Vanden Brook, “Army warns it could have trouble
handling single war,” USA Today, October 17, 2013.
[xxiv] Andrew Tilghman, “Hagel: Cuts will shrink pay, benefits,
force,” Defense News, July 31, 2013.
[xxvi] David Lenman, “U.S. Air Force outlines plans to cut
286 planes, Donley says,” Bloomberg News, February 3, 2012.
[xxvii] John Tirpak, “Welcome to the hollow force,” Air Force
Magazine, September 2013; Brian Everstine, “PACAF cuts back on exercises
because of sequestration,” Air Force Times, August 12, 2013.
[xxviii] U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, “U.S.
Navy active ship force levesl, 1886-present.”
[xxix] Peter Apps, “Analysis: From Syria to South China Sea,
navies cruise back into vogue,’ Reuters, September 30, 2013.
[xxx] Christopher Cavas, “Fleet hovers around 300 ships in
new U.S. Navy plan,” Defense News, March 28, 2012; AP, "U.S. keeping 11
aircraft carriers, Panetta says," Jan. 22, 2012
[xxxii] Churchill, 1955; http://www.winstonchurchill.org/learn/speeches/speeches-of-winston-churchill/102-never-despair
[xxxiii] Quoted in Adam Entous, “Top military officer: U.S. can
stay global power despite threatened cuts,” Wall Street Journal, March 28,