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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cut military spending

The 112th Congress of the United States, which will convene January 3, faces difficult fiscal and monetary decisions. Aside from the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, a major question is the long-term sustainability of programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, pensions and benefits for retired federal employees and military personnel, and benefits for current federal employees. One would wish to increase spending, decrease taxes, and reduce the national debt simultaneously. Actually, such a trifecta has been possible at times in the history of our country, but 2012-2013 is not one of those times.

I hope the Congress has the courage to confront military spending. Other nations are able to provide better social services for their populations -- not just entitlement programs, but also domestic programs like improved transportation. Those other nations, of course, don't spend an enormous percentage of their governmental income on a military like we do.

The war in Iraq, whatever you think of it, is winding down. In another few years the war in Afghanistan will end as well, in either victory (whatever that is) or defeat (just ask the Russians). I believe the ground forces of the U.S. military -- primarily the Army, but also the Marine Corps -- should then be reduced in size to the level of troops currently in other theaters. This reduction of about 200,000 troops would still leave the ground forces with over 500,000 troops on active duty.

Similarly, our air and sea forces -- which are relatively less involved in Iraq and Afghanistan -- should be downsized 33 to 50%, with a similar reduction of aircraft and ships.

Why does the U.S. continue to carry a military that is of a scale to fight the Soviet Union? Inertia. Occasionally China is trotted out as the next threat to our country as justification for a large standing military, but I think that is an absurd proposition. Unlike Stalin and his successors, the Chinese simply want to get rich as quickly as they can. Eventually they will get control of Taiwan, and frankly there is no way that the U.S. military can deny a takeover of Taiwan. Besides, all the economic value of Taiwan to both sides would be destroyed in such a conflict. The Chinese know that, and so do we. Increased diplomatic and economic engagement of China should be our strategy.

There are legitimate reasons for the U.S. to retain the world's most powerful military, but it does not have to be as large as it currently is. We face no prospect of a major war with a defined enemy. Rather, with one exception we face only the prospect of continued suppression of terrorism and the occasional humanitarian or police action. The exception is defending South Korea from the lunatic North, but we don't need one million men and women on active duty to do that.

Capital spending on weapons systems must also be cut to a level that can sustain important R&D and production capabilities. We cannot allow those capabilities to disappear.

Are my thoughts politically feasible? It would be tough, to say the least. Overspending on our military makes some people feel good; it's been fundamental to American culture since 1945. Military installations are scattered around the country, spreading political influence. Businesses who sell goods and services to the military will resist change as strongly as possible because it threatens their livelihood -- what President Eisenhower warned of as he left office in January 1961.

To circle back to where I began, is it possible to increase spending, decrease taxes, and reduce the national debt simultaneously? No. We have to start somewhere, and the Department of Defense is the right place to start.