By Jeff Lukens
The U.S. federal debt is our nation's greatest strategic weakness. As the debt continues to grow, our military posture around the globe is threatened. Defense cuts are coming, and with that reduction must come a reduced mission. In this environment, what our nation's strategic mission should be, and what the corresponding defense funding should be to meet that need, are open questions. They are questions that need to be openly explored by politicians and the American people alike.
In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "A smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and do fewer things." Ever the public servant, Gates seeks to kindle a debate the country seems reluctant, but needs, to have. It would be an invitation to disaster if we kept the same mission with reduced funding, or a reduced force. By bringing the issue to the public forum, Gates apparently seeks to avoid that calamity.
The core Pentagon budget is now about $530 billion, and accounts for roughly 20 percent of federal spending, and roughly half of discretionary spending. Defense cuts are coming, that much we know for sure, and the easiest of them have already been made. Gates acknowledged that over the past two years, "more than 30 programs (weapon systems, etc.) were canceled, capped, or ended that, if pursued to completion, would have cost more than $300 billion."
After a comprehensive review, the Pentagon hopes to find additional savings. Whatever those might be, however, they will not be enough to meet their goal of saving $400 billion over 10 years. The pressure on the Pentagon's budget is part of the GOP's larger effort to cut the overall budget deficit by $4 trillion over the same time period. To meet that goal, the Pentagon is already suggesting that military missions and troop levels be reduced.
For a historical perspective, our defense budget hit a postwar high of 14.2% of GDP in 1953 during the Korean War. At the height of Vietnam in 1968, it was 9.5%, and it was 6.8% in 1986 at the height of the Reagan buildup. In 2000, military funding reached the lowest point on 3.0%. Today, 10 years into the Global War on Terror, we are spending 4.7% of GDP on defense.
In the 1980s, the Army had 18 combat divisions. Today they have ten. Many of the Army's weapons have already missed several rounds of modernization. Many of its soldiers are on their fourth or fifth tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. And the Army Reserves have been on repeated deployments overseas since 9/11 as well.
The Navy has been reduced from 600 ships in the 1980s to fewer than 300 today. They now have fewer ships than at any time since the First World War. In that same time, the number of tactical air wings in the Air Force has fallen from 37 to 20. And their planes are the smallest in number and the oldest in age, ever. The useful life of the tanks, artillery, planes, ships, and missiles that date to the Reagan buildup is ending, and the cost of replacing them is now far greater than it was back then.
Going forward, the challenge for Washington is to reach a political consensus that transitions our military capability and alliances, and meets the realities of the decades ahead. As a nation, perhaps the first question we must ask ourselves is what is so critical to our security that we are willing to go to war to defend it? Upon the answer to that question lie answers to how much military strength we need, and at what amount of funding will be needed to achieve it.
Once the Afghan War is over, we would hope to see U.S. troop levels reduced in the Middle East. In Korea, the South has twice the people, and many times the economy of the North. Moreover, Pyongyang has no Soviet Union or Maoist China backing them as in the past. We may also have an opportunity to reduce our commitment there.
And what is the necessity for a U.S. troop presence in Europe? The Red Army withdrew from Germany and the rest of Central Europe long ago. Our European allies are as wealthy as we are. And while they would rather push their defense responsibilities off on us, perhaps it is time for us to step back from there too. Should we really have U.S. troops stationed in places like Kosovo? Maybe we should let the Europeans handle these places on their own.
Our military footprint is shrinking because we are broke, and we must make hard choices about what is important to our nation's security. Some have said we should not partake in any more wars where we must endlessly explain our reasons for being there to the American people. In this time of austerity, perhaps that is right approach.
The old axiom that peace comes through strength has not changed. When a crisis comes, we could be forced to pay in blood and treasure many times over what we save today in downsizing our military. Clearly, we must be smart about downsizing our military and optimizing its strength while undergoing this process. Our decisions today will be consequential to when that day of crisis inevitably comes.
In his AEI speech, Gates said:
I am determined that we not repeat the mistakes of the past, where the budget targets were met mostly by taking a percentage off the top of everything, the simplest and most politically expedient approach both inside the Pentagon and outside of it. That kind of "salami-slicing" approach preserves overhead and maintains force structure on paper, but results in a hollowing-out of the force from a lack of proper training, maintenance and equipment - and manpower. That's what happened in the 1970s - a disastrous period for our military - and to a lesser extent during the late 1990s.
The biggest items in the federal budget are Social Security, Medicare, and Defense. It is unlikely we will reach any long-term bipartisan budget deal without cuts to all three. So Defense cuts are coming, and the 2012 campaign season is as good a time as any to air this issue publicly. As Gates said, "Part of this analysis will entail going places that have been avoided by politicians in the past."
The President, the Congress, and the American people should openly decide which commitments and capabilities America should maintain, reduce, or abandon. It is a debate we need to have. Typically, most pols would kick this thorny issue down the road. In one of his final acts as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates has brought this vital issue to the forefront of the public attention. His service to the nation is commendable. Let the debate begin.
Jeff Lukens is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. He can be contacted at www.jefflukens.com