The North Korean threat in an age of Pentagon cuts

April 11, 2013

It may not feel like it, but we are closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The temptation to dismiss the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as a cartoonish figure of fun belies the real and present danger his samurai sword rattling presents. A strange time, then, for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to set out on the most thorough reappraisal of our defense spending since the end of Vietnam.

It is no secret that Hagel relishes the chance to slim the armed forces to a more affordable size. It is what commended him to President Barack Obama. He has already commissioned a wholesale “strategic choice and management review” of the Defense Department, which has been told to think the unthinkable in terms of cutting spending. This week, before defending his vision before the House Armed Services Committee, he offered a glimpse into what he has in mind: a slimming of the desk-bound middle management whose pay and perks cost more than the value of their contribution to the nation’s defense; a clearheaded look at the generous health and retirement benefits the nation’s military and veterans enjoy; the abandonment of expensive advanced weapons that may not be necessary; and an unsentimental assessment of the need for all of our domestic military bases.

Hagel invited “change that involves not just tweaking or chipping away at existing structures and practices but, where necessary, fashioning new ones” because “left unchecked, spiraling costs to sustain existing structures and institutions, provide benefits to personnel and develop replacements for aging weapons platforms will eventually crowd out spending on procurement, operations and readiness.” The American military is too large, Hagel argued. “How many people do we have,” he asked, “both military and civilian? How many do we need? What do these people do? And how do we compensate them for their work, service and loyalty with pay, benefits and healthcare?”

Until recently, such a radical approach to military spending would have been greeted with a chorus of disapproval, not just from those whose constituencies include the military bases that provide a vote bank for those who argue for the maintenance of high defense spending, but also from the united Republican leadership. Until George W. Bush left the White House, protecting the strength of the military was a top priority for the GOP. Maintaining high spending on the military, come what may, was a key policy difference with the Democrats to be played up at every turn. Since Eisenhower, all Republican presidents have spent like drunken sailors on the military to counter fiscal conservatives in their ranks who demanded that the federal government be put on a diet. Lavish spending on our forces was used as a counterweight to fiscal conservatism: backdoor Keynesianism to pump money into a flagging economy.

Now all that has changed. Fiscal hawks from the Tea Party rule the roost, and it is hard to find a military hawk prepared to come out in the open and argue his case. The fiscal hawks are behind allowing the sequester to take effect. For defense, this means $47 billion in largely arbitrary cuts by September to forces’ pay, to reducing flying hours for air patrols, to canceling the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf, to cutting army and marine training, and other hastily arranged improvised savings that will hamper our ability to respond to events like the craziness emanating from Pyongyang. The fiscal hawks find these hasty, careless, risky, reckless cuts to the military acceptable simply because the sequester shrinks the deficit and shrivels the size of government. In a battle between fiscal rectitude and patriotic military preparedness in today’s GOP, balancing the books wins every time.

In the meantime, the same congressmen resist adopting Hagel’s carefully planned defense budget. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska and, more importantly perhaps in this context, a distinguished Vietnam veteran who served on the front line as a lowly sergeant, plans to cut tens of thousands of jobs in the military’s middle management. “Today, the operational forces of the military — measured in battalions, ships and aircraft wings — have shrunk dramatically since the Cold War era. Yet the three- and-four-star command and support structures sitting atop these smaller fighting forces have stayed intact, with minor exceptions, and in some cases they are actually increasing in size and rank,” he said. Cutting the numbers of military fat cats “leads to more agile and effective organizations and more empowered junior leaders.” It is time, Hagel said, to “to pare back the world’s largest back office.”

Hagel also proposes closing redundant military bases at home. And he wants to cut the benefits provided to current and former members of the armed forces. In an argument that should appeal to fiscal conservatives ‑ for it is the same argument they make for cutting benefits to civilians ‑ Hagel warns that “we’re not going to be able to sustain the current personnel costs and retirement benefits. There will be no money in the budget for anything else.” If the cuts are not made, the Pentagon would become ossified, “an agency administering benefit programs, capable of buying only limited quantities of irrelevant and overpriced equipment.”

The absolutism of fiscal conservatives should work in Hagel’s favor. In a rare confluence of forces, both sides of the political divide are prepared to consider bringing defense spending into line with the change in the nature of our potential opponents. The age of the big battalions and massed tanks has long gone. We now face dangers that are best met by stealth fighters and bombers, cyber-warriors, special forces making incisive interventions, cruise missiles and drones operated from thousands of miles away.

If Hagel gets his way, we should end up with a leaner and meaner military that is within our budget. But it means some frank talking to those who prop up outdated military structures and who maintain a deleterious system that keeps large communities of families dependent on the Pentagon for their livelihoods, their housing, their education and training. Weaning so many thousands off the Pentagon’s largesse will take courageous congressmen making hard-nosed decisions. But the temptation to dodge the bullet and continue with a bloated military may be too hard to resist, even for those who claim to put fiscal rectitude before all else.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W. W. Norton. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a briefing on the Defense Department’s FY2014 budget at the Pentagon in Washington April 10, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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It has now been roughly 60 years since the Korean War ended.

I suggest:

(1) The US “wean” South Korea from our military protection, especially since they are selling consumer goods into our economy that is costing us jobs.

I would also make the same argument for a severe reduction in US forces in Japan for much the same reasons.

(2) The US military NOT use the Korean dispute as an excuse to increase our military budget.


The issue of the presence of the US military is more of an irritant to all those involved, and may be a precipitating factor in North Korean belligerence.

The US simply CANNOT, nor should we, maintain an empire any longer. IF we are going to improve relations with China, we need to start using negotiations with them, instead of a “military pivot” back to SE Asia.

We would have far fewer budget problems if we looked more realistically at our true military needs, and move towards a more defensive posture for too many reasons to list here.

We are still “fighting the last war”, and it is literally killing us.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

I concur with the observations of the earlier commentator. The days of empire building with our over sized military are clearly over. The money is simply not there to support it. Many nations that have been and still are under the U.S. nuclear defense umbrella must now stand on their own two legs. The free ride is over. The reality of it all can be seen in a 16.4 trillion dollar national debt; a debt that will never be paid if the old ways are continued.

Posted by joe10082 | Report as abusive

you may not feel like it Nick, tell us about the amount of US military spendings in comparision with the rest of the world to give us a clearer idea of what “cut” means. thanks.

Posted by DimSum | Report as abusive

” protecting the strength of the military was a top priority for the GOP” The GWB-led GOP had a very strange way of showing this, though (and a very expensive one). Sending our soldiers to be shredded by ied’s with no plan to repair the mental and physical damage they returned with, and no money to fund the services

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

The US military is treated as the personal play toy of the American elite rather than as as a vital part of the US Government.

The American People do not want our top 1% in wealth to “rule the world” on the backs of our people, and at a staggering cost. This all has been for nothing substantive for the USA. It has all been for the “glory” of the rich and of certain tiny ethnic minorities here in the USA. Now we have decided to throw our disabled, retired citizens and the bottom 90% of the population by income “under the bus”. Enough!

If you want an Empire, go find another country to achieve it. Give us self-rule back! Election reform! No more rule by militarists.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

This author compares the setting up of hundreds of Russian nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba with the pathetic arsenal of North Korea. Get a grip. Obviously, there’s another agenda based on the belief that the United States must maintain a larger military force than the rest of the world to maintain it’s leadership. The sad part is these people refuse to learn from our failures in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, the United States (or China or Russia or Israel) could send one bomber with a hydrogen bomb and eradicate most of North Korea, but that will never happen.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

There are no cuts to the Military Industrial Budget. Only cuts to the RATE OF GROWTH. How many commentators know this? It seems only RUSH LIMBAUGH… why is that? The most conservative commentator around is the only one I’ve heard admit that only the rate of growth is being cut?

Posted by doren | Report as abusive

In 1973 the U.S. military went to DEFCON-3, sortied the fleet from Piraeus and Naples, and placed all its nuclear strike aircraft at launch status. Nixon, Kissinger, and the Navy CNO Zumwalt all identifed it as one of the worst crisis they faced. The world is nowhere near that situation today. Really Wapshott, a reputable news source like Reuters should not have someone like you working for them.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

What we have to realize that a current “white paper” from the PRC (China) as to its military, indicates that Maoist doctrine is still very much a part of the PLA strategy, and that China believes its nuclear weapons, and thus the intention to use them, is an essential part of its defense against “precision attacks by conventional missiles” directed against China or its allies. Short of achieving a repeat of the MAD strategy of the Cold War era, (mutually assured destruction), that doctrine pushes the global doomsday clock closer to midnight once again. On the other hand the biggest problem with Pentagon budget cuts is more the risk of drastically reducing the capability of the United States to defend against foreign aggression. SDI was a Cold War originated and oriented system, and it was covertly (black budget) and overtly extremely expensive. In comparison the “new” missile defnese systems are soemthing similar to returning to arrows in an age of guns and gunpowder. Whether SDI is or can be maintained effectively under the new fiscal conditions is in question. Whether it can be expanded in light of a Chinese threat is an even larger question. The problem with the DPRK is miniscule in comparison with how the east west strategic situation is continuing to develop,and every Pentagon cut stimulates the global arms race in China, Russia and elsewhere, because they now feel they can get the edge and get ahead of the United States so much more easily and certainly. That stimulates their investment in their own military industrial complex, and it stimulates weapons development and production. A well funded Pentagon, with superior weapons, was the main influence in reducing the arms race outside of the major western nations. Now it is likely the arms race in the east will go completely out of control.

Posted by bobezergailis | Report as abusive