By Richard Pera
Despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, it is naïve to believe America is safer now than on 9/11; terrorism is still alive and well. Russia continues to reinvent itself as a global military power and its prime minister recently pledged the largest military increase since the end of the Cold War. China’s meteoric rise to economic superpower has led to dramatic expansion of its military. The new regime in North Korea remains as unpredictable and perplexing as before. In the wake of the “Arab Spring” and forthcoming American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Middle East is less stable than it was a decade ago. On top of all this, Iran, will likely possess a nuclear weapon soon. So, does it make sense for the Obama administration to pursue major cuts to the U.S. military?
In early February, President Obama called for military cuts far deeper than those already planned (if the President took no action, the Defense Department was already projected to shrink by 487 billion dollars over the next ten years). Without a doubt, sacrifices must be made to overcome trillions of dollars of national debt, but should our national security be the first thing we risk? Supporters of Obama’s plan are quick to point out that American defense expenditures are over 45 percent of global defense spending and eight times more than each of our greatest competitors, Russia and China. U.S. defense spending, however, amounts to just 14 percent of the total budget, less than a third of entitlement programs. To put things in perspective, annual spending on entitlements (social security, healthcare, welfare) comprises 150 percent of the entire world’s military spending (2.11 trillion dollars), including our own. An equal percentage of cuts to entitlement spending (as opposed to defense) would result in three times the savings.
The escape route from our piling national debt should not go through our military. That said, in light of withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems logical to cut some Army and Marine Corps end strength — going back to pre-9/11 levels is ill-advised. After all, can we really say for sure that we will never again deploy major ground forces in combat?
Personnel cuts should not lead to significant base closings. Military bases inside the U.S. provide critical economic security (i.e., jobs) for communities across the country. The U.S. bases overseas provide enormous flexibility in time of crisis, affirm our commitment to allies, and keep enemies in check.
The most dangerous defense cut the Obama administration can make is to the fleet. The U.S. Navy is the President’s most effective tool of national power projection. Seventy percent of the world’s surface is ocean, allowing the fleet to extend U.S power and influence to every corner of the globe. Eighty percent of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of the coast, and most importantly, 90 percent of all trade travels by maritime conveyance. Trade is what has allowed the U.S. to gain economic hegemony, and trade is key to growing our economy out from beneath massive debt. A large and technologically superior fleet is necessary to ensure a vibrant U.S. economy.
Constantly deployed, the fleet can project power at a moment’s notice. Just recently, President Obama directed two aircraft carriers to the Arabian Gulf despite Iranian threats of retaliation. When a South Korean frigate was sunk and North Korea shelled the South last year, we scrambled our forward deployed carrier strike group straight to the Korean peninsula. Naval exercises throughout the Pacific, including off Taiwan, are more than mere battle simulations; they demonstrate to China that the U.S. will remain the Pacific power.
The Obama Administration used naval power effectively during Operation Odyssey Dawn, when American forces led the ousting of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The U.S. was able to conduct operations successfully from the Mediterranean Sea. This was only possible through naval power and overseas bases, (including U.S. bases in Italy and Greece) from which allied forces staged their operations. Of note, U.S. surface ships and submarines fired over 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Libyan targets.
In 1987, the United States Navy boasted 594 ships, just six shy of President Reagan’s ‘600-ship’ Cold War-era goal. In 2007, that total fell to 278, the lowest amount since the nineteenth century. In his 2012 budget announcement, the President spoke of shifting the national security focus from Europe and the Middle East to the Pacific. The distance between Los Angeles and Shanghai is 6,844 miles. An ocean so vast can only be patrolled by an extensive naval force — precisely the one Obama is crippling with budget cuts. How can this new strategy succeed if we do not adequately resource the Navy?
Technology has developed to a point at which the capabilities of different types of 1980’s vessels can be condensed into one modern warship. It is true that many of our current ships are capable of multi-role combat operations; unfortunately, each ship is far more expensive than before, but I would argue that shipbuilding is worth every penny. First, ships are an effective instrument of power and political leverage over a 40-year lifespan. Second, ship operations and maintenance are less costly than ever before; technology and automation has cut on-board manpower, meaning fewer paychecks and repair bills. Third, contracting ship construction to private companies not only ensures the most sophisticated military technology, but also provides jobs that pay a living wage. Local economies in Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi and Virginia rely heavily on shipbuilding.
One final argument in favor of securing our military spending is humanitarian. Our armed forces are the first on-scene after natural disasters strike anywhere on Earth. Not often discussed, by some standards, the Department of Defense is the largest and most effective humanitarian assistance organization in the world.
For example, the fleet provided immediate and vital assistance to individuals after the 2004 Asian tsunami, 2005 Hurricane Katrina, 2010 Haitian earthquake and 2011 Japanese earthquake/ tsunami. Additionally, the military conducts scheduled (i.e., non-emergency) missions with foreign partners to provide medical assistance and food around the world. Besides the peacetime mission of deterrence, military humanitarian missions project a positive U.S. image around the world. It is this reality that inspired the motto of the U.S. Sixth Fleet: “Power for Peace.”
It is imperative that defense of our homeland and allies not be risked. With these cuts to the military, the Obama administration has over-reached in a hasty attempt to cut the overall budget. The risk is simply too great, and every American will be in jeopardy.