In the 1970s, rather than rebuilding the military after the Vietnam War, President Jimmy Carter let it go hollow—the military looked okay on paper, but readiness dropped to appalling levels. President Bill Clinton adopted a similar strategy after the Cold War.
They both did it for the same reasons: Wanting to respond to criticisms of “big government” spending, they cut defense—hence less government spending—but they could save as much of their precious “big government” as possible.
Clinton’s neglect of the military was less apparent, because Reagan had built up the armed forces in the 1980s. Today, President Obama is copying the Clinton strategy, gutting defense to protect other spending. But the Clinton strategy won’t work today.
In the 1990s, the military was living off the investments of the Reagan years, and America was largely unchallenged. Today, the military is old and worn out, and America is challenged on many fronts. That’s why Heritage has been raising a red flag this month with a series of events to warn America that America’s military is going “hollow” again.
The Pentagon, however, is not the Administration’s only target. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), a military service that is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is also about to get whacked. “Whilst the Administration is reducing the numbers of USCG cutters in the Pacific and arguing against the full number of replacement cutters and the building of a new Offshore Patrol Cutter, the need for an expanded USCG capability is going up,” writes defense expert Robin Laird. “This is yet another disconnect between words and deeds.”
These cuts are particularly troubling because it sends all the wrong signals to China, which has every intention of turning the South China Sea into “China Lake.” Heritage Asia expert Walter Lohman warns, “Let’s be clear about one thing: Tensions in the South China Sea are about China.”
In his analysis on the Web site Second Line of Defense, Laird concludes that part of the answer has to be investing in the Coast Guard:
For the USCG to play a lead role in shaping a maritime security regime, it needs a significant bolstering of its resources and capabilities. … The special qualities of the Pacific region require the USCG to have assets, which have greater endurance, range and survivability than assets in other [areas of responsibility], which in turn, reinforces the significance of the USCG’s efforts for modernization of its aging legacy assets. The USCG can not field a Third World Navy to deal with 21st century requirements to become an architect of a new maritime security regime.