“We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people” about the consequences of cutting the defense budget, said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his valedictory policy address to the American Enterprise Institute.
“(A) smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and do fewer things.”
Gates seeks to ignite a debate the country seems reluctant to have. With a federal budget running out of balance by 10 percent of gross domestic product, what are we Americans willing to sacrifice? What are we willing to forego? What are we willing to cut?
The biggest budget items are Social Security, Medicare and defense. To Democrats, the first two are untouchables. To most Republicans, defense is off the table. Indeed, the likelihood is that any budget deal to which both parties agree will contain escape clauses to enable Congress to avoid the painful decisions and kick the can up the road.
Consider the situation the U.S. military faces.
The useful life of the planes, ships, missiles, guns and armor that date to the Ronald Reagan buildup of the 1980s is coming to an end, and the cost of replacement weapons is far greater. A fleet of 2,440 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, for example, will cost over $1 trillion.
Military health care costs have risen 150 percent in 10 years to $50 billion a year. The pay and benefits of today’s forces, which are one-tenth the size of those we deployed in World War II, have seen comparable increases. These costs are eating deeply into the dollars for new weapons systems.
And while we no longer face a Soviet Union with nuclear and conventional forces equal to our own, U.S. commitments have not been reduced but augmented since the end of the Cold War. Six Warsaw Pact nations were brought into NATO, along with three republics of the old Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the disarmament of Europe continues in the wake of the debt crisis. Of special concern are cuts by the Tory government of Great Britain, our most reliable ally for 70 years.
While the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have been shuttled in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, China has fought no wars — but grown its defense budget by double-digits annually for two decades.
She now possesses submarines, missiles and aircraft sufficient to challenge the United States in the Western Pacific and is clearly intent on forcing a U.S. strategic retreat from the region.
“The tough choices ahead,” said Gates, are “about the kind of role the American people — accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades — want their country to play in the world.”
We face the necessity of choice, and perhaps the place to begin is for Americans to ask two questions.
First, what is so vital to our security we must defend it at the risk of war? Second, what Cold War commitments can we relinquish now that the Soviet Empire no longer exists and Russia no longer represents a global threat?
Once the Afghan War is over, certainly, a U.S. withdrawal from South and Central Asia would seem in order, as this is about as far from the United States as one can get.
The same would hold true of Korea. From 1950 to 1953, the United States, with a 330,000-man army, fought both North Korea and China. At issue was not only the fate of the peninsula, but the orientation of Japan in the Cold War.
Today, Seoul has twice the people and 40 times the economy of the North. Pyongyang has no Stalinist Russia or Maoist China backing it up in a war with the South. Can we not now withdraw our remaining 28,000 troops and restrict our commitment in any new war to air and naval support?
China today not only claims Taiwan, but the Senkaku Islands that Japan claims, and all of the islands in the South China Sea, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Is it our obligation to validate all of these claims against China? What is our vital interest in any of these disputes when every president since Richard Nixon has agreed that Taiwan is part of China? Cannot these countries buy from us the weapons to defend themselves?
Europe is as prosperous and more populous than the United States. And the Russian army is no longer in Germany, but 1,000 miles to the east, behind the Baltic republics, Belarus and Ukraine.
What is the necessity now for a U.S. troop presence in Europe?
Retrenchment is rarely attractive. But what is apparent today to almost all is that this country is now and has been for at least a decade living far beyond her means.
We borrow hundreds of billions annually from allies, to defend those allies. We borrow hundreds of billions annually from our children’s future to maintain our present lifestyle. Our leaders have yet to show the toughness and maturity the new times demand.