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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

America's military future is decidedly undecided. Looming sequestration cuts of massive proportions, coupled with a U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan, add to that the boiling partisanship over Chuck Hagel's nomination as Defense secretary, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that some of the Department of Defense's biggest challenges come from inside U.S. borders.

Still, the job of the DOD is to anticipate what threats to national security might look like - and prepare. Rob Wittman chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness.

REPRESENTATIVE ROB WITTMAN: We have increasing risks from nuclear powers like North Korea and Iran. Also, we have increased presence of the non-state actors in the area of terrorism. All those things are going to be critical. And obviously, now the question is not only how do we structure our conventional forces, but how do we structure those other forces? Those cyber forces, those asymmetric forces, those special operators? Those are all going to be critical questions that we have to ask in the years to come.

LYDEN: That's our cover story today: unease, the future of the American military.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: In the past five years, we have steadily reduced the burden of national defense.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: It is true that we can responsibly reduce our defense budget.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ...a new defense strategy that ensures we maintain the finest military in the world while saving nearly half a trillion dollars in our budget.

LYDEN: The end of every war brings new predicaments in Washington. Budgets have to be weighed against potential threats.

GORDON ADAMS: We have had three major defense build-downs since we got out of the Second World War: one after Korea, one after Vietnam, one at the end of the Cold War.

LYDEN: That's Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University and the former senior White House official for the national security budget in the Clinton administration. He says history tells us there's plenty of room to cut the defense budget while still keeping us safe.

ADAMS: Every time if you start in the year where we were spending the most and went 10 years out, you found that we had reduced the defense budget 30 percent in constant dollars, every single time. Right now, we haven't yet significantly reduced the defense budget at all. So my guess is that sometime over the next 10 years, we'll see something like a trillion to a trillion and a half dollars come out of defense from what we would've had if you'd gone from fiscal '10 when we spent the most and just give them inflation every year after that. It will be - it will look like very big cuts.

LYDEN: What can we expect the military to look like in the next 10 to 15 years, and how large has the military budget grown?

ADAMS: The defense budget today is somewhere in the range of $650 billion. That's more than doubled since 2001. Including the war cost, it's about 4.2, 4.3 percent of the gross domestic product, and it's probably the highest number in constant dollars that we've spent on the military ever since the end of the Second World War.

LYDEN: And I'm imaging that that is attributable to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ADAMS: It is, in large part, attributable to it but in an interesting way. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan probably added between 100 and $150 billion a year to what we would've otherwise spent on defense. But that said, nobody was going to question the basic defense budget while we were at war. So it is the engine that pulled a very, very large train.

LYDEN: You know, when we talk about the billions of dollars that have been spent on the wars, you know, one wonders what sort of military moment we are in right now. There has been a lot of discussion about rejiggering the military to fight the long war, the anti-insurgent war, and I'm wondering what we've learned from that.

ADAMS: I think there's a fundamental change in the reality of how the military might be used, which is in much smaller units, in much smaller areas for very temporary periods of time with a lot of training of local forces when they go in and go out. And all of that says to me it is perfectly safe and sustainable to bring down the size, particularly of the ground force, quite sharply in the process of doing a build-down.

LYDEN: What does President Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel suggest about what he intends for defense spending?

ADAMS: I think in terms of the overall approach to the use of the military, it suggests caution about where we send and deploy and how we use America's military. It also suggests the budget is going down, not necessarily because President Obama has decided to push down the defense budget, but because we're out of Iraq, out of Afghanistan. Other issues like our fiscal situation are more important, and the defense budget is going to accommodate that in order to get to some kind of a fiscal solution.

So the biggest challenge that Secretary Hagel will face at the Defense Department isn't Iraq. It isn't Israel. It isn't Afghanistan. It isn't Iran. It is managing a defense drawdown.

LYDEN: You know, when we talk about the billions of dollars that have been spent on the wars, do you think, in the day and age we're in, does it keep us safe in the current global security situation?

ADAMS: Absolutely. I think what's unique about the situation we're in right now is in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of America's national security interests, we have never been safer than we are today. We don't face an existential threat. We don't face a major power that can extend its reach to the United States. The Chinese are a long time off before that's a serious challenge to the United States in a military sense.

There are very few challenges that we face that are as stunningly dangerous as the ones that I grew up with, which was the Cold War and the risk of a nuclear Armageddon with the Soviet Union. We're not there. We're way away from there. And in many respects, in many regions of the world, this has become a safer, not a more dangerous, world.

LYDEN: You're saying, Gordon Adams, that this is a relatively secure time if we're talking about conventional warfare. But predictions in the past have sometimes misjudged what seems to be the best line of attack for the moment. You make new ballistic missiles, and then it turns out that maybe you're going to go the route of drones. You make drones, and then it turns out that maybe you need some kind of land defensive unit. Are we prepared?

ADAMS: Yeah. We are entirely prepared for most of the challenges that you can imagine today. The pieces that people talk about when they say what are the black swans, what are the things that'll come at you and you don't know that they're going to come at you, right, they typically fall into the zones of terrorism or cyber. Most of the response to a cyber-offense is not a military response.

Terror is the kind of attack that requires a very small handful of people. We have today in the Special Operations Forces 68,000 people. That's the very precision-oriented kind of capability that you're going to use to deal with that black swan attack. It's not going to be a ground invasion of Pakistan.

LYDEN: Gordon Adams is professor of international relations at American University.

Of course, the character of future wars is notoriously difficult to predict. Mackenzie Eaglen studies security at the American Enterprise Institute.

MACKENZIE EAGLEN: Those are the wars America would choose if we're the only ones who have to make that decision. Everybody wants shorter wars, more bloodless wars, wars that avoid boots on the ground, things that can be done, you know, not kinetically, through cyber and air power and other things. But unfortunately, wars tend to have shown us that they are messy, and they often involve the loss of life and treasure. And so we just live in a more complicated and unpredictable world where hedging against one type of threat would certainly buy us the wrong military.

LYDEN: Mackenzie, we've been talking about cutting, cutting, cutting. Is there some area in which actually you think we should be growing the defense budget?

EAGLEN: Well, there are areas that are going to maintain stability, if not grow. So, for example, the cyber threat. That's a pot of money that's going to maintain itself. Of course, special forces, the demand has only gone up, you know, 12 years after 9/11, and this very small group of warriors needs more bodies. And they're going to continue to grow. Unmanned systems - whether that's robotics, whether that's drones, for example - that whole class and field of technology will continue to be in high demand for the U.S. military.

LYDEN: Can you grow those kinds of programs, though, and still cut the budget, Mackenzie?

EAGLEN: It seems that that is an obvious thing that you can do, but, in fact, what we find is, for example, take special forces. This group of warriors often recruits from the general purpose forces. So the standing Army and Marine Corps, for example, you count on those guys to provide a lot of support and in other missions and operations around the world. So as the big military goes, so eventually will go the special forces. It will be very hard to grow them organically while the rest of the force is shrinking.

LYDEN: I want to ask you a little bit about the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense. What kind of signal does his selection send, do you think, from the Obama administration?

EAGLEN: To me, it manifests a reality that's been under way for the last five or so years, which is the growing friendship between the libertarian worldview and the liberal worldview. Their means are very different, but their ends are ultimately very, very similar in a more isolationist foreign policy and a smaller military and fewer options for how you use them. So basically restricting foreign policy by cutting back on defense.

Those two factions are a voting majority of Congress. It's why we've seen significant defense cuts before we even had the fiscal cliff and the sequester. There's a widespread sentiment among people in those two groups that they've seen the militarization of foreign policy and the lack of emphasis on softer, smart power or other tools of statecraft. That wars of choice, you know, need not be part of the future and that we shouldn't do as much with our military. Therefore, it can be much, much smaller.

LYDEN: That's Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Great pleasure to have you in. Thanks for coming.

EAGLEN: My pleasure. Thank you.

LYDEN: The political reality in Congress will inevitably mean less money for defense contractors. We thought we'd talk to a couple of them to find out how they're planning to adapt to a smaller military budget.

Eric Basu is CEO of Sentek Global, a California cybersecurity company. He doesn't like the idea of sequestration, but he's planning for fewer defense dollars.

ERIC BASU: The nice thing about the rational, long-term cuts is they generally give you a little more lead time. If companies can plan in advance, then people can move on to other industries and move on to other companies fairly easily.

LYDEN: Rodney Hudson's strategy for lean times is to diversify. He owns a company in Maryland.

RODNEY HUDSON: I am looking to other markets - Indonesia, Malaysia, the UAE. Turkey's looking at it, the United Kingdom, just to name a few.

LYDEN: So whether we're talking big armies or long wars, a military-industrial complex or a complex military industry, it's Congress which ultimately decides how big our military really needs to be. And those battle lines are now being drawn.

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