Apocalypse now or apocalypse averted?
Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a strategy within the Pentagon to tackle the looming debt crisis by slashing billions from the American defense budget.
This has been met with the requisite cries of doom by policymakers, pundits and casual onlookers who balk at the idea of reducing our Armed Forces while one war continues, one just ended and the possibility of another looms on the horizon.
Their fears are overblown. Though there is a very real problem within the Pentagon, it is not due to a lack of resources.
It is ridiculous to assume that the defense budget of the United States, at 40 percent of global military expenditure, cannot provide for the national defense at still-over 30 percent. If the United States cannot defend itself with a third of all worldwide defense spending, then something is seriously wrong. $470 billion is no trifling sum—if the Pentagon still finds itself in dire straits with even this massive amount of money, then the problem runs deeper than simple finances.
A great deal of the problem can be attributed to mismanagement. As a general rule, the secretary of defense has little involvement in the day to day operation of the Pentagon, being busy with other matters.
For the most part, that responsibility is in the hands of the deputy defense secretary. Unfortunately, the trend for this position over the last several years is one of ineptitude, incompetence and cluelessness.
Ashton Carter, the incumbent deputy undersecretary of Defense Leon Panetta and many of his predecessors, had no experience management or organization and little to no experience in the armed forces. This is nonsensical, and it is reflected in the track record of the respective administration.
Granted, military superiority is a tricky beast. Being the number-one technological military power means more than simply outspending number two. Leading the race for supremacy carries its own unique set of disadvantages.
For one, it is significantly more expensive to front the research for highly advanced armaments than, say, stealing it. No technology, no matter how closely guarded, can remain secret indefinitely. Competing military powers benefit from the work of their superiors—the relationship is not mutual.
The key to guiding the United States military into a secure and successful future is relatively straightforward, in theory. Application will be more difficult, gradual and most probably, heated on the typical partisan lines.
Domestically, better management and fiscal responsibility in the Pentagon is a must. Failure to penalize cost overruns is unacceptable, and a further burden on American taxpayers that are quickly losing patience.
Security commitments abroad must be reigned in. There are enormously advantageous purposes for certain American installations abroad (particularly in South Korea), but it makes little sense to spend billions for troops to occupy placid regions of the world with no looming security threat.
The U.S. military is unequaled in power projection: there is not a location on Earth outside of American reach. Relying on this strength would be infinitely more cost-effective, and equally conducive to inhibiting our strategic doctrine.
Apocalyptic visions of helplessness and whatnot often accompany talks of budget reductions, in every sphere of federal spending. There is, of course, definite wisdom in this. Can anyone plausibly deny the necessity of being prepared? The American economy is the world’s largest—it makes sense for our defense budget to reflect this. But the line must be drawn somewhere.
After all, a reduction of the military budget in times of economic crisis and relative security (the war in Afghanistan does not now, nor ever, pose an significant threat to the United States) does not mean that the budget cannot be rapidly expanded in a time of war.
Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, the American military expenditure was somewhere near 1 percent of GDP. Upon entry, that shot up to an immense 45 percent in the span of only a few months.
This is why the economy is an issue of national security. More important than what we spend on defense is what we are capable of spending on defense. A cut of a quarter of the defense budget will diminish the strength of the American arsenal, yes. That cannot be denied.
But we are in an economic slump, and the time has come to tighten the belt. If that means a reduction in military readiness, however slight, so be it. Far more crippling would be a defense budget that continues on, bloated and ill-managed, deepening our economic distress, and wounding our defense in a way that cannot be recovered.
The choice for small sacrifice must be made soon. Otherwise, we may not have a choice—and the sacrifice will be anything but small.