Imagine this scenario on Capitol Hill in 1989: A new Administration has been inaugurated, and the secretary of defense has come before the Joint House-Senate Armed Services Committee to describe the state of the U.S. military.
The senators and congressmen want to know why the nation has received so little for the $2 trillion spent on defense since the military buildup began in 1980. What they hear is the most chilling assessment of the military balance ever delivered by a responsible senior official.
The state of U.S. defenses, the secretary says, is critical. In every measure except strategic nuclear forces there has been a profound contraction in U.S. military capability; 2 million personnel were on active duty in 1980, and 2.1 million in 1985. But in 1989 the figure is 1.3 million. From 28 Army divisions funded in 1985, there now are 18; from 40 tactical fighter wings approved, only 25 are actually in service, and the Navy has sunk from 15 carrier battle groups to 10. Readiness is below the unsatisfactory state of the 1970s and the days of the so-called hollow force.
Fiscal forces are the immediate cause of this dramatic decline in military capability, the secretary adds. The cumulative defense and economic policies of a series of U.S. Administrations produced a national debt that reached $2 trillion in 1985. The cure was the Gramm-Rudman bill, a five-year mandatory plan for balancing the federal budget. Deficits above certain limits triggered automatic across-the-board cuts in federal spending. These were divided equally between defense and domestic programs. In 1986 $30 billion was cut from defense, $50 billion in 1987, and in 1988 more than $60 billion. A tax increase that could have eased the deficit problem was vetoed by the Administration.
There was little chance to minimize further fiscal damage, because the law prohibited flexibility and discretion. Congress feared that without such an inflexible rule all fiscal discipline would be lost. And by preventing the executive from choosing where to cut spending, Congress protected itself from presidential retaliation.
But the effect crippled U.S. military capability. The automatic cuts produced a morass of confusion and waste. Operations and personnel accounts were gutted. Soldiers and sailors were forced out of service with only a few days' notice. Readiness declined with lightning quickness.
Procurement was hit even harder. Because procurement is spread out over many years, it was necessary to cut three dollars to achieve one dollar's worth of immediate savings. Thus the actual reduction for 1986 was nearly $40 billion, rather than the $15 billion cut in procurement specified by Gramm-Rudman. Things could have been worse had Congress not passed a special act that year, recognizing that it is impossible to buy half a tank, a ship or an airplane.
But, the secretary continues, things did indeed get worse in 1987 and 1988.
The original plan for 1986, '87 and '88 was to spend a total of about $850 billion on defense. Gramm-Rudman mandated a reduction of nearly $150 billion. But the net result, when the multiplier effect on procurement was factored in, was a reduction of just under $300 billion. The Administration labored valiantly to preserve defense from Gramm-Rudman, but couldn't because of three years of political gridlock between Congress and the White House.
Strategic nuclear modernization and President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative also imposed heavy demands on defense spending, further reducing conventional forces. The great U.S. military buildup collapsed, and those who believed that all this money would provide fat for the lean years were sadly disappointed.
This spectacle of self-imposed U.S. disarmament did not collapse NATO, although allies in Europe simultaneously ridiculed and feared what America was doing. At first the Soviet Union did not exploit this condition. Moscow simply refused to believe that the United States could embark on a premeditated policy of self-emasculation. This is no longer the case. The U.S. inability to force the Soviets out of their new base in Nicaragua in 1988 underscored this military weakness.
Today, the secretary lectures the panel, the situation is still perilous. Even with the repeal of Gramm-Rudman in 1988 and the defense increases that have been recommended to the 101st Congress, there is no confidence that the United States can carry out its conventional wartime tasks.
Then the secretary ends by reading a story from the Times of London describing the political situation as seen from various European capitals just before the outbreak of World War I. In Paris the situation was reported as serious but not yet critical. In Berlin the report was more cynical and realistic--a situation viewed by the Germans as critical but not serious. Critical but not serious, the secretary speculates, is an appropriate description of 1989.