There are many ways to balance a budget.
Most of us, for example, spend 30 percent or more of our income on housing. Skipping mortgage payments is a surefire way to make ends meet — until they take your house away.
Health insurance can be a real waste, too, if you’re healthy. Dropping it may seem like a great idea — until you get sick or have an accident.
These are, of course, clear-cut examples of misguided fiscal thinking.
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Which brings us to the latest craze in Washington, D.C., when it comes to balancing the books: gutting defense.
Consider the "sequestration" option laid out in the Budget Control Act of 2011. It provides for automatic reductions in "discretionary" spending. For the military, that would mean huge cuts. In the first year alone, sequestration would slash defense spending up to 18 percent. Over 10 years, our armed forces would take a trillion-dollar hit.
The majority staff in the House Armed Services Committee recently took a hard look at the details — and spelled out what cuts on that scale would mean to the size and capabilities of our military. Their findings were stunning. The Army would be smaller than it was before Sept. 11, for one thing — too small to mount sustained operations such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. That would be fine if the U.S. never had to undertake major military operations again. Of course, that was the thinking behind the reductions we had before Afghanistan and Iraq. And that didn’t work out very well.
The Navy would lose several dozen ships, making it by far the smallest since 1914. Yes, modern ships are much more capable than they were in the age of dreadnoughts. But the world is still the same size. The United States didn’t even have a carrier available at the start of the Libya operation. Under a sequestered budget, there could be at least two fewer carrier battle groups.
The Air Force would be the oldest and smallest since we started having an air force. The United States has enjoyed air supremacy in every conflict since World War II. There’s no guarantee that will be true in the next conflict.
As for the Marine Corps, it’s not much use without the amphibious ships that carry the troops, the aircraft and the fire support that transport the Marines worldwide. After the cuts, the Marines could be short by up to one-third of the amphibious ships they need to move and support their operations. Of course, the Pentagon doesn’t have to distribute these cuts equally.
Defense officials could focus on one part of the world, and one or two services. We could, for example, only worry about China and starve the Army and the Marines to build up air and naval forces in the Pacific. But that would be as foolish as building a car with lights and engine, but no steering wheel or brakes.
There’s a problem with militaries designed to do only one thing well: The enemy gets a vote. Every war the U.S. has fought in recent years was in an unexpected place against an unanticipated enemy. Having a "scalpel" for a military doesn’t help much when what you really need is a Swiss Army knife.
The reality is that more defense cuts mean the U.S. simply will no longer be the military power it once was. As a result, America will be less safe.
To make matters worse, gutting defense won’t even solve America’s budget problems. Defense spending could go to zero today, and spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security over the next few decades will still consume the entire federal budget.
The only way to stop sequestration is for a congressional "super-committee" to propose an alternative long-term plan to reduce the deficit — a plan that Congress and the president must agree to. Let’s hope they don’t come up with a "super folly" that degrades America’s military and bankrupts the nation.