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The U.S. Defense Budget: Are we overextended?

Just before the end of the Cold War the Bush Administration announced that the next year’s defense budget would be almost $300 Billion. It was a budget based on the needs of the on-going superpower standoff. It included a new generation of submarines, new carriers, new technologies for soldiers on the ground, and personnel levels that by today’s standards were staggering. Remember in 1988, prepared for a land invasion by the Soviet Union, the U.S. had over 500,000 service members in Germany.
It was a big budget, but not outlandish, and building on the Reagan era rearmament made sense. During the 1980’s we had built

the infrastructure, in terms of personnel and equipment, and this was just the cost of maturing and maintaining that capability. It was also decidedly limited in its focus. It was the Cold War. Our adversary was the Soviet Union. However, that reality, almost overnight, changed.
Most of us know the sequence of events since then. The Soviet Union was no more, and what emerged, after an all too short hiatus, was the terrorist threat and with that came a new list of enemies. And oh yes, some old ones, like North Korea and Iran. However, the announcement that the U.S. Department of Defense is asking for a staggering $553 billion begs several questions. Are we spending too much? Have we, like other great nations of the past, become overextended? And are we buying the right capabilities for the era we’re in? We’re threatened on all sides. But by the same token, even in the Cold War, we prioritized our threats, and more often than not, tried to keep a balance. It was a strategy that worked surprisingly well.
Right now, the United States is still directly engaged in two conflicts. One is smoldering and hopefully nearing an end, in Iraq, and another is much hotter and more dangerous in Afghanistan. However, as relatively quiet as Iraq seems, it’s still dangerous, and it consumes a lot of money. And of course, so does Afghanistan. The latter, in particular, has a logistical trail so complex that if all the costs for transporting fuel to the war zone were calculated, a gallon of gas would go for $45. Financially, and all war boils down to resources, Afghanistan is a draining conflict.
Worldwide, the U.S. stands ready for anything. This is particularly true at sea. The U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers, with another one, the Gerald Ford, under construction. That’s a lot of fire power. And there are places where it might come in handy, but some have wondered if the size of the force is a little large for our needs. The same observation might be made for our submarine force. Again, at times, it looks like we’re ready to fight the cold war again. However, the same can also be said for the fighter aircraft we’re buying. They’re high end technology, but more often than not, we’re facing low end technology adversaries.
On a broader scale, there is no arguing, the number of threats the Department of Defense needs to be prepared to face has grown and in places no one would ever have expected. Once again, the Navy is fighting pirates off the coast of Africa. It’s not an easy business. When a Navy ship meets up with a pirate, it’s usually game over for the pirate, but the challenge, in millions of square miles of ocean, is finding the pirate. The technology, communications, and manpower required to deal with these criminals is no small undertaking.
Of course, today, there are threats that didn’t exist in 1988. The U.S. has a sophisticated Space Command and a cyber security arm. Both are impressive, and both are probably necessary, but they too, eat up more and more of the defense dollars. As does the covert capabilities of the American military. These are the folks who spend most of their time hunting down terrorists. I am not ready to trade away any of that capability, but they are expensive. The question is: what would I trade in order to keep them?
Some people find it offensive that we even think of national defense in terms of dollars and cents. But, national defense, even with the most patriotic of motives, has always been about resources. Just ask George Washington. If we decide that no commitment is too much, or no expense too great, we run a risk faced by other great nations in history. One of the causes of the downfall of Rome was an array of commitments that became too much for her treasury. Even Soviet Russia failed for almost the same reason.
It’s easy to say, in matters of national defense, that we have no choice. But the fact is we have plenty of choices. They include a rational scaling back of our commitments and developing capabilities suitable for the enemies we may have to fight today, as opposed to those we faced in the past. Now, with our national budget in crisis would be a good opportunity to make some of these choices on our own. That is, before financial necessity makes them for us.
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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