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How Does the Election Result Affect U.S. Defense?

Maybe not much

Some observers in Washington say U. S. defense policy probably wouldn’t have changed much regardless of which candidate won the election on November 6. “Military issues have an inertia all their own,” said Jason Maclean, an independent Washington analyst and author. “They take years to change and they rarely reflect the personality of the man in the White House.”

President Obama, Afghanistan

President Barack Obama greets U.S. troops following his remarks at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, May 1, 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

To others, it makes a difference that incumbent President Barack Obama, a Democrat, defeated his Republican challenger, former Gov. Mitt Romney. “They’re different in both substance and style,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.

With regard to style, it has gone mostly unnoticed that Obama is a “hands on” commander-in-chief. He requests briefings on battalion-level operations. He signs off on “kill lists” in the drone war the United States is waging against al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The nation’s 44th president made key decisions in the May 1, 2012 Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, down to details of how many helicopters to use – and he made the risky decision to go when key aides advised against it. Romney was expected to follow the George W. Bush model and rely heavily on the advice of Pentagon leaders and industry figures. Significantly, the 2012 election was the first since wartime 1944 when neither presidential candidate was a military veteran.

No matter the outcome of the election, the nation was always going to have a new Secretary of Defense. Pentagon boss Leon Panetta, who is increasingly looking like an interim figure, wants to leave. A likely replacement is his deputy Ashton Carter. But even if Romney had been elected and, as expected, made former Navy Secretary John Lehman his Defense Department boss, the nation would still be leaving behind its emphasis on counter-insurgency warfare that dominated Pentagon thinking during the 2006-2011 tenure of Robert Gates.

Head scratching by analysts in Washington is producing thoughts about the election result and its link to future defense policy, but most seem focused on the obvious. A “pivot” toward Asia and the Pacific, reduced troop strength in the Army and Marine Corps, and a bolstered Navy and Air Force are among the changes Obama has espoused and will probably implement when he begins his second term on January 20. It remains to be seen whether Congress will let Obama stick to his plan to shrink the Army to 490,000 active-duty troops and the Marine Corps to 186,000 over the next five years.

No battleship is part of U.S. inventory today, but the word popped up in a presidential debate – in its guise as the name of the popular board game “Battleship” – so it might be appropriate to create a metaphor that wasn’t used in the campaign. American defense policy is like a man-o’-war in the sense that it can be turned around only very slowly. No elected official can bring about rapid change in military programs, and it’s unlikely that the occupant of the White House would be able to do so even if the election result had been different.

Looming over any discussion of defense policy is the nation’s debt crisis. It’s what Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus called “a perfect storm” of economic troubles caused by years of deficit spending: a lame duck Congress now must confront the absence of a budget for the current fiscal year which began last October 1, a pending repeat of an earlier debate about raising the nation’s debt ceiling, and – above all – the process known as sequestration, under which mandatory cuts of $1.2 trillion in government spending, including $500 billion in defense spending, will automatically take effect on January 2 unless the situation is changed by new legislation.

Only Capitol Hill can prevent sequestration – something both candidates for the presidency said they wanted – but the occupant of the White House has a bully pulpit from which to nudge and to steer Congress. A few observers see sequestration as a kind of tough love that needs to be allowed to happen, harsh as that would be, to force the nation into stemming the flood of public red ink. Most in Washington, however, say some other solution needs to be reached. “I don’t believe that any president can or would permit sequestration to come into being, for the effects would be catastrophic not only to procurement but to a generation of research and development efforts,” said author and analyst Walter J. Boyne. “If sequestration happens, our forces will be in disarray just as potential enemies begin to reach formidable strength levels.”

President Obama, NYFD

“A few days after the mission against bin Laden, the President traveled to New York City to meet with families of the 9/11 victims. He also visited at Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 Firehouse. The firehouse, known as the “Pride of Midtown,” lost 15 firefighters on 9/11 — an entire shift and more than any other New York firehouse. Here, the firefighters offer an impromptu toast to the President in honor of their fallen comrades during a lunch at the station house.”
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In the intermediate aftermath of the election, both Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who failed to reach a “grand agreement” on the budget crisis a year ago, called for bipartisan action to avoid sequestration, which is also part of the “fiscal cliff,” the other element of which is the expiration of certain tax cuts. Although Republicans are tied to a pledge not to raise taxes, Boehner said he and fellow GOP lawmakers “are willing to accept some additional revenues, via tax reform” – seemingly a concession. In subsequent interviews, however, Boehner seemed less conciliatory.

Supporters of a military build-up argue that decades of shrinking the armed forces have left the United States barely able, at best, to meet world commitments. The paradox is that the United States spends as much on defense as the other nations of the world combined. The U.S. Navy’s battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. But success in America’s overseas war effort seems elusive. Said author and analyst Norman Polmar: “No matter what happens, Afghanistan is going to go back to exactly the way it was before we got there.”

So what lies ahead for U.S. defense? Think readiness for “peer” warfare – conflict between modern nation-states – and less interest in counter-insurgency. Expect at least some of the Obama ground-force reduction plan to move ahead. Watch for a fresh look at troubled procurement programs like the Navy’s littoral combat ship and the joint-service F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Look for renewed emphasis on finding and reducing waste in military spending. And plan on some sort of saving as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan.

Most of these things were going to happen one way or another and seem, now, to be the way of the future for U.S. military policy.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...