The Hawks are out in South Carolina

Article by Zac Rogers Flinders University PhD Candidate

As the race headed to military-laden South Carolina over the weekend (the state’s annual economy is supported to the tune of $19 billion by military installations, firms, and retirees), the Republican defense hawks were out in force. Jeb Bush wants to increase spending by over $1 trillion over the next ten years.  John Kasich is calling for $102 billion in additional spending over eight years. Marco Rubio wants a 323-ship Navy with an additional aircraft carrier. Just ask and yea shall receive. Not quite. The Budget Control Act, which kicks back into effect next fall (US) unless Congress acts to change it, has put severe constraints on the defense dollar, so much so that the Obama administration’s own budget is $100 billion beyond the caps over the next five years.

Enter Ted Cruz. The Texas senator, attempting to please both defense hawks and budget conservatives at the same time, took the questionable option of actually providing details of what he planned to do. Cruz wants 50 000 more active-duty soldiers for the Army, a 350-ship Navy (today its 273 and dropping), and 500 additional aircraft for the Air Force, heavy on fighters and drones. Cruz declined to include a price tag, offering instead, “If you think it’s too expensive to defend this nation, try not defending it.” Um. A Center for Strategic and International Studies senior adviser estimated Cruz’s plan would add $140 billion to the Obama administrations FY 2017 defense budget alone. To pay for it, Cruz offered to accelerate economic growth to 4-5%, sell federal land and other assets, audit the Pentagon, and cut waste in other areas by $500 billion. Done.

To what extent potential voters actually listen to these details, and are aware of their contradictions, is obviously questionable. And Cruz is a politician trying to block attacks from his right. Cruz voted in favour of a 2013 Rand Paul proposal to slow defense spending (barely), which failed, and has had to fend of charges from Rubio that portray him as weak on defense. His response is to project strength, and to appeal to Republican voters who are receptive to the narrative that an overly cautious Obama (read Clinton) White House has left the United States vulnerable. This is a fine line for a candidate that has also sought to portray himself as a budget hawk.

That reality and retail politics are sometimes askew is nothing new. Maybe Cruz felt compelled to go the extra mile and provide details of his massively expensive ‘plan’ to address a political vulnerability. Smart move for a candidate who has judged his audience, and carefully weighed their anxieties. The reality is that the United States has enough money to pay for the military that it wants. Its just that every budget decision has a priority cost. One, among many, of the biggest looming challenges for the United States in terms of these priorities is the question of its nuclear forces. The Triad: the air, sea and ground-based components that make up America’s strategic deterrent need upgrading. Its projected to cost $1 trillion dollars over the next three decades. This is a massively important and consequential debate about the Pentagon’s number one mission. For allies also, who have been nervous about US commitments in various places for a while now, it doesn’t get much more serious.

To pay for the New Triad, gaps will inevitably open up elsewhere. Treasured priorities including aircraft carriers, attack submarines, a large and diverse surface fleet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and Army readiness could all be affected. Informed calls to shrink the strategic submarine force, reduce the number of ground-based ballistic missiles, and eliminate the tactical element of the nuclear force posture to save money have already been tabled. This last option would mean removing all 180 warheads currently stationed at bases in Europe, and would quash the need to fit the new B61-12 to the F-35, if not the need for the new tactical nuke to exist at all. As Rod Lyon has argued, the tactical mission is uniquely targeted to support U.S. allies. Can the U.S. strategic arsenal readily fulfill that role? All in all, big, big changes, while a resurgent Russia and an increasingly assertive China push boundaries in ways unseen for decades. How is NATO feeling? And Taiwan?

All this serves merely to illustrate the objective seriousness of the reality of US defense policies, both inside and outside of that country. The veritable un-seriousness of the debate in South Carolina this week, and in the Republican primaries so far (Democrats are not immune either), is something we stakeholders on the sidelines can only hope begins to recede as the year goes on.

Disclaimer:  this is the view of the author and Flinders University does not take responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the material and does not accept responsibility for, or endorse the contact or condition of, any linked website.

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