Fort Leavenworth in Kansas is the perfect place to go to think about the U.S. defense budget. The Combined Arms Center is the brain trust of the Army. All the Army’s majors pass through it. Its alums include all the five-star generals of modern times: Arnold, Bradley, Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Marshall. Its former commanders include David Petraeus. To meet its officer-students—nearly all of whom have seen action in Iraq or Afghanistan—is to see what is best about the American military today.
So should we slash the budget that pays these exemplary men and women? Only if you believe the currently fashionable arguments that mankind is getting ever more peaceable, the Middle East is entering a happy new era of democracy and peace, and China does not pose a strategic threat to the U.S.
First, the case for cuts. The U.S. remains a formidable military power. The Department of Defense has total military personnel of 1.4 million, about a fifth of whom are deployed abroad. The U.S. defense budget is larger than those of the next 15 countries combined.
The wars the United States has fought in the last 10 years, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have not come cheap. Since September 2001, lawmakers have provided $1.283 trillion in budget authority for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, a huge financial crisis has blown a hole in the nation’s finances that urgently needs to be filled. Even if interest rates stay at their current low levels, the growth of the federal debt means that within less than a decade interest payments are likely to exceed the defense budget.
For all these reasons, many in Congress thirst to slash defense. Already this year it has been cut by approximately $465 billion. The president, too, is in a hurry to wind down American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month he announced that only 150 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq after the end of the year, down from nearly 50,000 today, ostensibly because of the unwillingness of Iraqi lawmakers to grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution. He also plans to pull 10,000 troops out of Afghanistan this year and another 22,000 by the end of September 2012.
And more drastic cuts are coming. By Nov. 23, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—the so-called super-committee—is supposed to come up with a plan to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. If it fails to do so, automatic sequestrations will kick in in 2013. The effect would be to reduce the regular defense budget (excluding Iraq and Afghanistan) by at least $492 billion between 2013 and 2021, or from 3.4 percent of GDP to 2.7 percent or less.
A report by the House Armed Services Committee’s majority staff estimates that this would cut the Army and Marine Corps from 771,400 personnel today to 571,000. The Navy would go down from 288 ships to just 238. The Air Force would shrink from 1,739 fighters to 1,512 and from 118 bombers to 101. But perhaps the biggest worry is what these cuts would mean for research and development, currently just 11 percent of the Pentagon budget.
Now, it may be that we are entering a period of unprecedented peace and brotherly love. Maybe the Arabs will live happily ever after with new democratically elected leaders. And maybe the Chinese will always be our buddies. But I would not like to bet $492 billion on that. The future I fear is the one that comes after most big financial crises: a period of populist anger, political instability, and cross-border conflict. The youth bubble in the Greater Middle East is at its peak. Resource wars are looming as emerging-market demand outstrips supplies of everything from rare earths to fresh water. And China is already a credible threat to our cybersecurity.
I worry that our national-security strategy is currently being improvised in response to fiscal and domestic political pressures rather than to rational risk assessment. And I remember the old Latin adage: Si vis pacem, para bellum—if you want peace, prepare for war.
As they know only too well at Fort Leavenworth, the converse is also true.