The military is in trouble again. The Obama administration has presented its budget for Fiscal Year 2015, which starts Oct. 1, and Congress has already declared it Dead on Arrival. Some things in Washington never change. What is different is that this includes defense spending that, for the first time in 13 years, is not on a war-time footing. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called for a reduction in forces and the cancellation of some projects. This has caused some ultra-hawks to claim America’s defensive capabilities are eroding. In fact, the measure of national defense should never be how much a nation spends, but whether what it purchases suits the current threats as well as those that are plausible in the future. So, relax. Less is more here.
The Military Times says, “The Defense Department’s total base budget request for 2015 is about $496 billion, down from $553 billion three years ago before the latest round of budget cuts took effect.”
Hagel said, “After Iraq and Afghanistan, we are no longer sizing the military to conduct long and large stability operations.” The Army’s peak during the Iraq surge was 570,000, and it will drop to between 450,000 and 440,000. The budget sequestration deal could shrink it to about 420,000. Is that enough? Well, to do what? Not fight in Afghanistan and Iraq? Yes, that’s more than enough.
• The Army will cancel the Ground Combat Vehicle program (which it doesn’t want and Congress keeps funding anyway)
• The Navy would be able to maintain 11 carrier strike groups, but any steep future cuts could require mothballing the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (most carriers in the world belong to the U.S., our allies have most of the rest)
• Half of the Navy’s cruiser fleet, 11 ships, will be placed in reduced operating status while they are modernized and given a longer lifespan (since we have 11 carriers, we probably won’t need all of these).
• The Navy will continue buying two destroyers and attack submarines per year (whatever for?).
• The Marine Corps will draw down from about 190,000 to 182,000, but would have to shrink further if sequestration returns (not much of a decline really).
• An additional 900 Marines will be devoted to securing U.S. Embassies (a token force of about five more per embassy).
• The Defense Department is asking Congress for another round of base closings and realignments in 2017 (amen).
• The Air Force is giving up the A-10 anti-tank airplane (lovingly known as the Warthog) and the U2 spy plane (in service for five decades or so).
I don’t consider myself a dove at all. I believe that when properly employed, lethal violence is an acceptable mechanism for conflict resolution. It stopped Hitler and Tojo, and I don’t think anything else could have. Pacifism is immoral — but that’s another article.
However, I am not a hawk either. War is, frankly, economically inefficient. I go along with Dwight D. Eisenhower (a man not usually associated with pacifism) in believing “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” We need to spend enough to protect ourselves, but spending more than that is a luxury in which we ought not indulge.
The truth is the threats America faces are not from other nation states. Even in the current Ukraine-Russia situation, there has been no fatal shooting. Instead, the threats come from non-state actors (terrorists if you prefer), and the huge exception to everything is North Korea. For these threats, America doesn’t need its ground combat vehicle (tanks are not terribly useful when anti-tank missiles abound).
We certainly don’t need the F-35 stealth fighter that will cost more than any other weapon system in history because there is no other air force America can’t take with what it has now. The U.S. Air Force is the largest in the world with about 5,800 aircraft. The second largest lags far behind at about 3,700 — and it belongs to the U.S. Navy. Russia is third with half the personnel of the USAF and one-tenth the fighters. Perhaps the USAF could form an alliance with the U.S. Navy…
Nor do we need the missile defense system we have spent $170 billion on so far. First off, no one with missiles that have any accuracy wants to hit us. Russia is the main concern here, and Mutually Assured Destruction has kept the birds in the silos for decades. The other reason we can stop spending on it is that the missile defense system doesn’t work.
Military science is pretty easy really. It’s about logistics and execution, or as the traitor Nathan Bedford Forrest put it during the American Civil War, “getting there firstest with the mostest.”
So we shouldn’t demand that America’s military have the best weaponry money can buy. It would be more accurate to say we need the best weaponry money can buy in sufficient quantities to be effective in the relevant battlespace. Subs are lousy in desert warfare, cavalry doesn’t hold up well to helicopter gunships, and our enemies in the coming decades won’t blitzkrieg their way across central Europe.
More special forces, more cyber warfare capabilities, and more intelligence gathering is where the money should go. Each is cheaper and more effective than another carrier group. And at $495 billion, I think there’s room for further cuts given the threats out there.