America’s Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta announced this week a deep cut in the United States’ defence budget starting from 2013. The cuts will mainly hit American ground forces which will be reduced by 13%. The army will lose some 80,000 soldiers and the marines a further 20,000. The air force and the navy will be hit less hard, although the production and deployment of new aircraft like the F-35 stealth fighter will be slowed down, also affecting the timetable for the arrival of these aircraft to the Israeli Air Force. The American navy will keep all of its 11 aircraft carriers except for a short period between the decommissioning of its oldest carrier, the Enterprise, and the entry into service of its modern replacement, the Gerald R. Ford which is currently under construction.
As far as the spread of burden, these are probably the least damaging choices. It is much easier to rebuild ground forces rapidly then to recall to service air and sea units or replace them with new ones. The United States army also has a large contingency of reserve and National Guard forces. Britain, which was also badly hit by the global recession, learnt the lessons of budget cuts to air and sea units when a few weeks after it decommissioned its Sea Harrier jets and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and converted its last remaining carrier, HMS Illustrious, to carry helicopters, British forces were called upon to implement a no-fly zone over Libya and to attack ground targets from the air. The Argentinians are also sensing this weakness, and 30 years after the Folklands War in which Sea Harrier jets, taking off from older carriers, had an important part to play in Britain’s victory, voices are getting louder in Buenos Aires calling for the retake of the disputed islands by force.
It is very likely that this is not the end of the cuts story. Continuing economic pressures will dictate further and deeper cuts in the not too distant future. The hits sustained by the American defence budget are a direct result of the global economic crisis, and this crisis is a direct result of the irresponsible conduct of American banks which for years approved the lending of hundreds of billions of dollars in sub-prime mortgages to people who stood no chance of repaying them, against property assets that were worth far less than their highly inflated paper value suggested. These loans were then packaged in securities that masked their true identity and were sold to other banks in the US and around the world. When the bubble finally burst, these banks discovered that the securities they were holding were worthless. Very few people were called to task for this irresponsible behaviour. When the United States and other countries are now forced to make painful cuts to their defence budgets, they better remember the direct link between fiscal responsibility and strategic might.