The future is not bright for the U.S. military. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave America a glimpse of the half-trillion dollars in defense spending cuts requested by the Obama Administration and detailed how the U.S. military’s capabilities would be affected in practical terms. The result is a slashed and burned military that woefully lacks the forces it needs to meet America’s security challenges on a global scale.

On the ground, in the sea, and in the air, American forces will shrink drastically — the Army will shrink by 72,000 people, the active Marine Corps will be reduced by 20,000, the Air Force will see six tactical fighter squadrons de-established while an additional training fighter squadron will be eliminated, the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter procurement will be slowed, and the Navy will retire seven cruisers and two amphibious ships at an early juncture while delaying the procurements of new ships. To put these cuts in context, we are returning to ground forces levels we had under President Bill Clinton when the Army strained and scrambled to execute smaller missions like Kosovo and Bosnia–let alone significant ground force operations.

In order to compensate for the drastically reduced military capabilities, the Administration plans to increase reliance on unmanned drones and special-operations teams based around the globe. But special operations are a scalpel, not a Swiss army knife. They are not an “easy-button” substitute for the many security missions the United States undertakes worldwide. And they rely on a strong backbone of conventional forces in order to succeed. The U.S. Navy’s presence was essential in Somalia during the recent hostage rescue, as was the Air Force’s support in the first phase of Afghanistan and the Army’s muscle during the surge in Iraq. Special forces without robust conventional forces is like a wide receiver without a quarterback and a line.

In a new paper, The Heritage Foundation’s Baker Spring, the F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, explains that the U.S. military is in danger of becoming the broken force it was in the Carter era:

As was the case following the Vietnam War in the 1970s, defense budget reductions of the scope previewed by Panetta generally lead to reduced combat readiness and, ultimately, a hollow force. This is because a force that is too small has to endure higher operating tempos and rotation cycles. It also results in a reduction in the technological edge that permits the U.S. military to achieve victory on the battlefield quickly and with fewer casualties. Finally, it becomes more difficult to man the force with high-quality personnel and maintain high morale.

Unfortunately, these cuts are just the beginning. Under the Budget Control Act that Congress passed last summer, the military will face automatic budget cuts amounting to as much as $600 billion in addition to those that Panetta laid out yesterday. As Spring explains, the only way to avoid these automatic cuts is for the Budget Control Act to be amended or repealed — a measure that President Obama has said he would veto.

All of this comes despite the fact that spending on national defense — a core constitutional function of government — has declined significantly over time, despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Spending on the three major entitlementsSocial Security, Medicare, and Medicaid–has more than tripled. And while Washington attempts to cut spending, it is the military that is taking the brunt of it: For every dollar the President hopes to save in domestic programs, he plans on saving $128 in defense.

This leaves America in a precarious position. Fewer troops in all the services will be scrambling in a global shell game to mask the fact that the United States can’t defend all of its interests. The force will be even more stressed than at the height of Iraq and Afghanistan. By cutting the defense budget, the United States is undermining the responsiveness of its defense industrial base. In addition, without proper investments, the United States will lose technological advantages vis-a-vis its future strategic competitors.

Meanwhile, America’s enemies are watching. They can count our troops, our planes, and our ships. They can look on as America’s military retreats and loses its ability to project forces around the world. And they will quickly realize that the United States will not be able to cover its responsibilities worldwide. That is an invitation for the sort of security threats America cannot afford — and they are threats that America may not be able to respond to with its stripped-down military.

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