In Britain last week, the top defense story was the historic Army units that will be disbanded as part of the deep cuts announced nearly two years ago.
Although the 20,000-man cut was portrayed as new, it was outlined in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that would reduce the Army to its smallest size in more than a century.
Army leaders have been trying to focus attention — and hence mobilize political support for — the famous combat units that will be cut, but hardest hit will be the very support and service regiments key to regenerating the force in the event of crisis. That fact contradicts Army leaders who said they structured the reduction to allow forces to be quickly grown if necessary in the future.
It’s only the latest time SDSR budget-cutting moves have made headlines as they start being executed. The same thing happened last year when deep civil service cuts were implemented and real people started losing their well-paying government jobs.
Ditto in Italy. Officials earlier this year announced how much they were going to cut but not exactly what they would cut. Operations and training funding will be boosted slightly, personnel spending will remain flat and acquisition programs will bear the brunt of the cuts.
And the United States, which, if mandatory debt-reduction goals are not met, must slash defense spending by $500 billion over the coming decade, already has cut more than all the other nations combined.
As in Britain, American leaders claim to have taken a balanced view of cuts, trimming both people and programs. But the reality is that when a lot of money has to be cut quickly, it’s easier to get it from deep procurement reductions than slashing people, installations or through structural reform.
And it’s evident the impact on jobs and the economy that U.S. industry warned about is already being felt. The U.S. government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis has determined the defense downturn is contributing to America’s downturn.
None of this should come as a surprise. Any cut will be felt. Cut often and big enough, and it has wider economic effect.
That’s why the prospect of another $500 billion in automatic U.S. defense cuts is so worrying. If lawmakers fail to adopt a broader debt-reduction deal, come the start of the new year, the Pentagon would lose another $50 billion a year from its budget for another decade.
The stakes will be high on both sides of the Atlantic but higher for Europe, where markets are more fragmented, unity fleeting and capability already weakening thanks to sustained underinvestment.
In America, the coming downturn will reshape its industrial base, but the cuts will diminish the capabilities of all the countries making them. Reform and efficiency drives can help, but history has time and again proved that when you spend less, you get less, and cuts made for short-term gain can cause long-term headaches.
U.S. and European officials say they’re eager to maintain capabilities crucial to their national security, technological development, exports and general economic health.
To keep that from being an empty pledge, all governments have an obligation to be judicious and realistic in the programs they launch and even more careful about what they cut.