In February, 2011, the US Navy started construction on a new $15 billion aircraft carrier, slated to weigh anchor in 2020. It followed the just-as-costly Gerald R. Ford, then 20% built and due to set sail in 2015. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, China was putting its final touches on a new class of missile expressly designed to sink the Ford and its sister ship and their 15,000 person crews. China’s missiles, likely to cost about $10 million each, could keep the Navy’s carriers so far away from Taiwan that the short range aircraft they bear would be useless to any conflict over the tiny islands fate. Aircraft carriers, born in the years before WW II, are increasingly obsolete platforms of war. They feature expensive manned aircraft in an age when budgets are being squeezed and less expensive drones are taking over. While the US and its allies flew hundreds of attack missions against targets in coastal Libya, cruise missles delivered much of the punch, and US carriers were notable only for their absence. Yet the Navy, backed by the Pentagon and Congress, contines to churn them out as if it were still 1942.
It’s tradition, the industrial base and other old arguments that keep the shipyards building them. They should scale back the carrier design to build something much cheaper and simpler, like mother ships launching waves of cheap drones – that would actually be more intimidating. The growing antiship capabilities of adversaries begs the question, does the US really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?
In Washington. people are starting to ask unthinkable questions about long sacred military budgets. Can the US really afford more than 500 bases at home and around the world? Do the Air Force, Navy and Marines really need $400 billion in new jet fighters when their fleets of F-16s and F-18s give them vast air superiority for years to come? Does the Navy need 50 attack submarines when Americas main enemy hides in caves? Does the Army still need 80,000 troops in Europe 67 years after the defeat of Adolf Hitler?
It may seem strange to talk about defense cuts while the US is waging one war in Afghanistan, and has just finished a war in Iraq and a half war in Libya. But that ignores the fact that the biggest threat to national security is the debt. Which points to the tragic irony fo Washington’s $700 billion annual appetite for military stores. They are borrowing money from China to pay for weapons that that would presumably be used against it. If the Chinese want to slay America, they don’t need to attack them with their missiles, they just have to call in their loans.
Numbers tell much of the story: the US is now spending 50% more (even when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were in full swing) than they did on 9/11 and more than during the Cold War when the USSR had thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at US cities. In fact, the US spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined. They have waged a war for over a decade in Afghanistan, at a cost of over a half trillion dollars, against a foe with no army, no navy, and no air force. Polticians and eager defense contractors continute to sound a theme of constant vigilance against terrorists that have only successfully only struck once. They are an increasingly muscle bound nation – sending $1 billion destroyers, with crews of 300 each, to handle five Somali pirates in a fibreglass skiff.
While the US military spending has jumped from $1,500 per capita in 1998 to $2,700 in 2008, its NATO allies have been spending $500 per person over the same span. As long as the US is overspending on its defense, it lets allies skimp on theirs and instead spend on infrastructure, education and health care. So even as US taxpayers fret about their health care costs, their tax dollars are paying for a military that is subsidizing the health care of their European allies.
The secretary of defense proposed cutting $78 billion over five years, and Obama called for $400 billion in cuts by 2023. Even some Republicans think that the Pentagon needs to do its part in the war on debt. After going over the financial cliff, they will have no strength, and eventually, no peace. The numbers don’t work by focusing on waste, fraud, abuse and inefficiencies. Bigger changes are required, and they are long overdue. To reduce spending by $1 trillion over the next decade, weapon purchases must be trimmed, and personal costs reduced. Both require a new political will to stop treating military spending as pork, a regional and local entitlement that can go on forever. The US needs to take a hard-nosed look at the dozens of military costs that are no longer vital or affordable.
When requested to tighten their belts, the Air Force pledged to cut its fuel bill by $500 million over the next 5 years, while the Army could save the same amount with better e-mail systems. So much for civilian control over the military. The Secretary of Defense suggested closing down an outreach program to save $12,000, and combat gabfests to save $5,000!! He thought it important to not repeat the mistakes of the past by making drastic and ill-conceived cuts to the overall defense budget. Even a $1 trillion cut would leave the Pentagon fatter than it was before 9/11 and is not as drastic as it sounds. The number of air craft carriers could be cut from 11 to 8 and perhaps could be almost totally scuttled in favor of drone carriers. The annual purchase of two $3 billion attack submarines to maintain a 48 sub fleet could be stopped. The $383 billion F-35 program (by January 2015, the F-35 budget had soared to $1.2 trillion, as much as the entire Iraq war cost) isn’t required when US airplanes remain the world’s best and could be retooled with new engines and electronics to keep them that way. Reagan era missile defenses and the nuclear arsenal are Cold War relics with little relevance today. $500 billion could be saved b scaling back procurement over the next decade.
So much for hardware. On the human side of the ledger, pay and benefits have long needed revamping. Some 60 members of an aircraft carrier recently pocketed $3.4 million in bonuses – $57,000 each, tax free – to re-enlist. Military pay should be better aimed at troops the military wants to retain. The 20 years-and-out retirement system needs to be replaced with a model designed to keep hard-learned institutional knowledge around for twice as long. Health care premiums, frozen at $460 a family since 1995, must be raised to keep pace with the rest of the nation’s. (Pentagon medical costs have soared from $19 billion in 2001 to more than $50 billion today). The Pentagon is top heavy and 102 of the 952 generals and admiral could be cut. Trimming the ranks and replacing the archaic pay schemes with smarter personnel policies could save $400 billion in the coming decade. Just as ripe for reduction are dozens of specialized military agencies and outposts, most dating from the Cold War. The US now has 17 intelligence agencies – from the CIA to the hidden National Geospatial Intelligence Agency – generating so much intelligence that much of it can’t even be reviewed. Each service has its own branch. plus a Defense Intelligence Agency to handle anything that might fall through the cracks. These would all save $100 billion over the next decade.
Such cuts would still leave the US military as the world’s most potent. It would remain the lone force with global reach, given its logistical, communications and intelligence dominance. It would still be the only power able to send warships, warplanes, and missiles virtually anywhere in the world at any time. Citizens would be far more willing to cut defense than Medicare or Social Security. The attitude that a defense budget in decline portends an America in decline is bankrupting the nation, and the public knows it.
It is really up to Congress where to spend all the money, not the Pentagon alone, and that is a big part of the problem. An aircraft carrier and the dozens of planes it carries are worth $15 billion, and that’s before adding the destroyers and submarines needed to accompany it. The politicians involved in the purchase of these ships hail from Navy friendly coastal states with a strong interest in keeping as many of them sailing as possible. Right now, Virginia and Florida are fighting over the plan to move one of the five carriers in Norfold, Virginia to Mayport, Florida. The Pentagon is proposing the move so that a natural disaster or attack does not deliver a knockout blow to the Atlantic fleet. Virginia argues that the $500 billion cost of building the new facilities in Florida will detract from maintenance of existing shipyards. Neither side mentions the real prize: the 6,000 jobs and $400 million in annual local spending a carrier generates. Nor does either side note that the US Navy has not had a real shooting war with another ship since WWII. What’s missing is whether an 11th carrier at all. About a third of the defense budget is spent not for national security but because it’s in someone’s district or state. It’s a disease that infects the entire defense budget.
Following WWII, the Department of War became the Department of Defense, so instead of shrinking to a garrison force, it developed a never ending mission and an ever expanding portfolio. The US has been at war two out of every three years since 1989. Countries that continuously fight wars invariably build powerful national security bureaucracies that make it difficult to hold leaders accountable for their behavior. The Pentagon has expanded its role in homeland poliferation of nuclear weapons and waging cyberwar. It believes the US needs a broad portfolio of military capabilities with maximum versatility across the widest possible spetrum of conflict.
A realist school of foreign policy thinkers think it’s time to rationalize US missions and curb its presence overseas. Shrink its presence in Europe, Asia, and the Persian Gulf and consign their fates to regional powers. This would mean withdrawing tens of thousands of US troops in Europe and Asia and an end to the Marines 66 year presence in Okinawa. South Korea can handle North Korea without US troops, with offshore aid like intelligence and nuclear weapons coming form the US. The US will never invade Iran, but if it comes to war, air strikes and special operations missions would form the US military role, not an invasion of US troops.
The draining old fashioned boots-on-the-ground method of fighting war used in Afghanistan and Iraq changed to air and naval power in Libya, and special forces and drones in Pakistan and Yemen. Only by trimming missions can forces be cut, as that is where the real money is – in payroll and procurement. The Pentagon budget reflects present commitments, but these are not essential to US national security. It is a matter of balancing national security with prosperity.
Unwarranted influence from the military-industrial complex and special interests in the Pentagon or Congress should not determine the size and shape of the US military. But rather an alert and knowledgeable citizenry needs to set the goals so that security and liberty prosper together. For too long, an uninterested and distracted citizenry has been content to leave the messy business of national defense to those with selfish, bottom feeding motives. The US taxpayers need to demand that its government spend what is needed to defend the country – not a penny more.