Defense Secretary Robert Gates paid a recent visit to Abilene, home of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library. While there, he delivered a speech that invoked the eponymous president's "passionate belief that the U.S. should spend as much as necessary on national defense — but not one penny more."
Gates then announced that he was directing the Defense Department — both military and civilian components — to take a hard look at their so-called requirements "to cut our overhead costs and to transfer those savings to force structure and modernization within the programmed budget." This is being described as a "big cut" in the budget.
The reality is that the likely savings will be $10 billion to $15 billion — certainly a lot of money, but less than 3 percent of the projected $570 billion baseline for the fiscal year 2012 defense budget.
For a sitting defense secretary, Gates asked some unexpectedly pointed questions:
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"Should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America's military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds? Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners? Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?"
Unfortunately, he was unable or unwilling to own up to the answer, which is simply "no."
Since the end of the Cold War, defense spending has essentially doubled. Yet actual direct military threats to the United States have diminished.
Gone is the former Soviet Union, and no hegemonic superpower has arisen in its place. To be sure, Russia still has an arsenal of long-range nuclear weapons, but the U.S. strategic arsenal acts as a powerful deterrent — not just against Russia, but also against China and any other country with nuclear weapons. Furthermore, no country possesses long-range conventional means to bridge either the Pacific or Atlantic oceans to invade America. In other words, we are relatively safe.
As such, we don't need the large military we have kept in place since the end of the Cold War. And we don't need to keep that military deployed to all four corners of the globe to keep a nonexistent threat in check. The military threats that exist are largely regional in nature, and we should let the countries in those regions — mostly wealthy allies more than able to pay for their own defense — shoulder the burden of their own security.
It's not simply a question of dollars. The massive U.S. military footprint is actually a detriment to U.S. national security. Even beyond the current unnecessary occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military presence overseas — a reflection of interventionist foreign policy practiced by Republicans and Democrats alike — acts as a lightning rod to whip up vehement anti-American sentiment that is a stepping-stone to terrorism.
Gates' desire to trim defense spending is certainly admirable. Indeed, he questioned whether the Defense Department's spendthrift ways are "respectful of the American taxpayer at a time of economic and fiscal duress." But his approach — cutting overhead to help fund new projects — is, at best, penny-wise and pound-foolish.