Afghanistan 10 years on

Casualties and the high economic cost are eroding support for US involvement in Afghanistan, reports Simon Mann.

Casualties and the high economic cost are eroding support for US involvement in Afghanistan, reports Simon Mann.

A United States marine stationed in San Diego was returning home to Alabama on leave recently. As he headed for his connecting flight in Dallas, Texas, a stranger walked in front of him, reaching for his hand.

''Thank-you for your service,'' the woman, in her 60s, said earnestly, repeating a common refrain among Americans. As she spoke, her travelling companion patted the soldier's shoulder approvingly. The encounter was a snapshot of a nation's gratitude: daily across the US, in myriad ways, Americans honour those in uniform with pride befitting the world's only superpower.

Indeed, at SeaWorld in San Diego, where the military is the city's biggest employer, servicemen and women are invited to stand and are applauded routinely before Shamu the killer whale does his stuff.

At sports events the country over, fans give a ''shout out'' to those who serve tax deductions apply to people donating their old car to veterans' groups food outlets give priority to military personnel, and throw in a free Coke. A writer to one airline magazine recently volunteered that he had swapped his business-class seat with a soldier travelling in the last row of economy. ''I urge all readers to try to comfort these young men and women serving our country and our freedom and liberty any time, any place an opportunity arises,'' he wrote.

Respect for the military is an integral part of the American way, and 10 years after George Bush first rained bombs on the Afghanistan badlands that harboured al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, Americans retain their unwavering faith in the 1.5 million who serve, though a constant stream of casualties has leeched public support for the longest war in US history.

American soldiers continue to be returned home in caskets as the death toll climbs towards 2000. Another 4800 US personnel have died in Iraq.

Now, as Washington extricates itself from both conflicts, new challenges, imposed by America's parlous financial state, threaten to reshape the US military, even undermine its capacity to deter conflict as much as respond to it.

More than at any time in the post-Cold War era, America is being forced to carefully redefine its priorities to fit a shrinking public purse, a necessity that is alarming hawks, as well as military families. The army alone is said to be planning to cut 50,000 soldiers, and all branches of the services will be under pressure to do likewise.

But more striking still will be choices made over equipment and technology, over how to re-equip services drained by a decade of deployment, while investing in the hardware to meet emerging 21st century threats.

''It would be nice to think we could now save money because we think we can come home from the war,'' says Joe Cerami from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

''But we have to retrofit the force and prepare for whatever the next contingencies might be. People aren't sitting still ? everybody is looking for an advantage, China included, Iran included, probably Syria as well. [They] are all going to be continuing to try to find an edge, so we're going to have to compete for quite a while.''

The new guns-versus-butter debate is, more accurately, a guns-versus-fewer-guns debate, one that ironically has been precipitated largely by the two conflicts that were triggered by the September 11, 2001, attacks on America and that started, officially, with those bombing raids on October 7, 2001.

Financed essentially from borrowings, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars - along with tax cuts that benefited mostly the well-off - have fuelled successive deficits that have added more than $US6 trillion to America's national debt. During that time Pentagon spending swelled from around $US400 billion a year to almost $US700 billion. The overall size of the armed forces barely changed: but waging war sent costs skyrocketing.

Now, a reckoning looms. As part of the much-vaunted deal between warring Democrats and Republicans to lift the debt ceiling in return for tough deficit-reduction steps, the Defence Department must find savings of $US350 billion over the next decade.

But that is a starting point. More worrying for the Pentagon - and for defence contractors generally - is the prospect of even deeper cuts should a bipartisan ''super-committee'' fail in its mission to identify further budget savings across all of government.

As part of the carrot-and-stick deal that raised the statutory borrowing limit above $US14.3 trillion (thereby allowing the US to continue to pay its bills), additional cuts are set to be imposed automatically should the committee miss its Thanksgiving deadline in November. That outcome could lift the cuts demanded of the Pentagon to nearer $US1 trillion.

Recently retired defence secretary Robert Gates had argued that a saving of $US400 billion was the maximum that the Pentagon could deliver, although observers characterised his stand as ''a negotiating position'', one that would ultimately be managed by his successor, former CIA boss Leon Panetta. But Gates was clear about the risks of cutting too deeply, arguing that to do so would be likely to dilute the military's deterrent effect.

''The lessons of history tell us we must not diminish our ability or our determination to deal with the threats and challenges on the horizon, because ultimately they will need to be confronted,'' he said recently.

''Beyond the current wars, our military credibility, commitment and presence are required to sustain alliances, to protect trade routes and energy supplies, and to deter would-be adversaries from making the kind of miscalculations that so often lead to war.''

Gates has already flagged as a likely consequence of the cuts a full review of military pay and retirement benefits, as well as a rethink on weapons acquisitions and even the military's two-war philosophy - its preparedness for fighting two wars at the same time.

The nature of America's accounts makes apparent the risk to defence. More than 60 per cent of the $US3.8 trillion annual budget is spent on items mandated by law - namely Social Security and the healthcare scheme for the elderly, Medicare.

Of so-called discretionary items, defence spending, including the Department of Homeland Security, accounts for about 60 per cent, leaving the ''super-committee'' with little room to manoeuvre.

The equation almost certainly guarantees that the Pentagon will be asked to find savings beyond Gates's optimum, an outcome that would reduce the margin for error for the architects of the Pentagon's future programs.

''It's not so much the recession that is a threat to national security,'' defence analyst Todd Harrison tells The Saturday Age. ''It's our debt, and the fact that we can't fight a major war without borrowing massive sums of money. So the credibility of our ability to fight and win a war, and therefore to deter a war from ever happening in the first place, depends on our ability to borrow. Our economy, our budget situation and the current politics are putting that at risk right now.''

America's threadbare budget was exposed essentially by the global economic downturn, but the crisis for the military was brewing long before.

More than a year ago, Gary Schmitt, of the American Enterprise Institute, pointed to a US military overstretched. ''The gap between what is needed to modernise the military and the resources being provided is larger than any 'reform' can bridge,'' he observed. ''It's far from clear that the US military can withstand another eight years of flat or declining [core] budgets and remain the pre-eminent global force it is today, continuing to spare us the costs that come with a world in which there is increasing anarchy and less order as American military power recedes.''

And the Quadrennial Defence Review Independent Panel, headed by two former defence secretaries, William Cohen and William Perry, was equally blunt, warning of a ''train wreck'' given ''the ageing of the inventories and equipment used by the services, the decline in the size of the navy, escalating personnel entitlements, increased overhead and procurement costs, and the growing stress on the force''.

Now the train wreck looks to have arrived, and tough strategic choices will be necessary as the troop build-up and training directed by the nature of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq give way to new priorities, and as the US shifts attention from the Middle East towards the western Pacific.

In recent years, America's navy and air force have suffered: the size of the fleet has fallen by about 10 per cent and the air force's aircraft inventory is the oldest it has ever been. Maintenance costs for both are rising.

But key replacement programs will be squeezed in the current climate. An example is new-generation jet the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, in which Australia has a key stake, and which has already been targeted by Congress for around $US600 million of cuts. The effect has been to slow down its production timetable, while lengthening the average age of existing aircraft. Some analysts speculate that the Pentagon might ultimately jettison the navy version of the JSF, opting for more Super Hornets instead, despite their inferior capability.

''State-of-the-art? Or something a bit less impressive? You have to weigh those factors,'' one analyst said.

Quandaries arise on nearly every budget line and in every facet of defence. Does the US try to maintain its unchallenged advantage in space? To do so, it will require continued massive investment in space-based systems.

''Do we want to continue to maintain our advantage in a long-range strike and stealth aircraft, those kinds of capabilities?'' asks Harrison, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. ''You know, to do that we have to continue to invest in the technology and in things like a next generation bomber.

''Do we want to maintain our advantage in the undersea and our ability to protect undersea infrastructure? To do that requires investment. And so on and so on. You can go down the list and in all these areas we have big choices to make and we can't say 'yes' to all of them.''

Even the successes of the latest conflicts, such as America's use of unmanned aerial vehicles, will not necessarily offer ongoing efficiencies.

''Those aircraft are a lot less expensive to build and operate than fighter aircraft or bombers that we would have been using instead,'' Harrison adds. ''But the problem is the UAVs that have worked so well in Iraq and Afghanistan, like the Predator and the Reaper, can operate only in uncontested air space.'' Adding stealth capabilities to give them wider application will also add costs.

Pentagon watchers say ''smart cuts'' are required. Ultimately, the US could favour co-operative, multi-force action that is more easily contained, for which the assault on Libya offers a template, over expensive counter-insurgency.

But as Joe Cerami observes: ''We will still need a navy to be getting oil safely out of the Persian Gulf, and dealing with piracy off Somalia. And in the air, the technology is moving so fast that you have to keep up with any possible opponents.''

THEN there are the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

''There is the old saying 'peace through strength', which is not bad advice for a wise course of action,'' adds Cerami, who served in the army for three decades. ''Now, how much strength you need to deter threats is always going to be a judgment call, but that's one that's going to have to be made. I can't for the life of me think that any of these threats that are out there are going to go away any time soon.

''And we're constantly discovering new threats with weapons of mass destruction, with technology transfers, in cyberspace ? The first time there's a cyber attack that shuts down major operating systems like the internet or Wall Street, the American people are going to be demanding why the government has not prevented that from happening, and my guess is that will be a military task.''

A priority that is non-negotiable?

For Harrison, it is the upgrading of America's nuclear arsenal for example, a replacement for ballistic missile-carrying submarines, ''critical to maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent''.

Cerami argues, however, for more resources for diplomacy, more exploration of civilian programs to complement and even replace military ones, and a greater commitment from NATO to share costs, though he concedes that Europe's own budget woes make the latter unlikely.

The view that threats are myriad and ever-evolving gels with that of military leaders such as Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who retires today. ''Our global commitments have not shrunk,'' he says. ''If anything, they continue to grow, and the world is a lot less predictable now than we could have ever imagined ? Cuts can reasonably only go so far without hollowing the force.''

And tailoring budgets for future threats remains an inexact science. ''Remember, you're talking 10 years out,'' Cerami cautions.

''What could happen in 10 years? Who knows? Because it's going to change every year as we go through budget hearings. Unfortunately, it'll be the next shock like a 9/11 that will jolt everybody back to reality.''

Simon Mann is US correspondent.

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