Predictably, Mister Bush made a point of addressing federal entitlement spending on programs like Social Security and Medicaid. While I certainly agree that we must eventually come to grips with entitlements issues, I also believe that focusing on social programs masks a larger fiscal problem: the ludicrous amount of money we spend on our military, which has turned into a social program itself.
In 2006, America will spend $500 billion on the Department of Defense, an amount roughly equal to the defense budgets of the rest of the world combined.
This extravagance might be justified if our armed forces were actually keeping America safe or achieving our goals overseas, but they are not. Our armed forces did not defend us against the 9/11 attacks and are presently bogged down in Iraq by a numerically and technologically inferior band of insurgents. Where's the bang for the buck in that?
We're presently using the F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft to intercept airliners we think might be on a World Trade Center style suicide air attack. The stealthy F-22 is the most expensive air-to-air fighter ever manufactured. I've seen the per copy price stated as high as $180 million, and from my experience with actual versus claimed weapon systems costs, it's probably higher than that. The F-22 was designed to take on the Soviet Air Force in the skies over Europe. That we're now using such a weapon to play tag with airliners is a perfect example of our arms spending overkill.
How Much of What is Enough?
I'm not arguing that America should completely disarm itself. Doing so would be foolish, and for our politicians to allow such a thing to happen would be unforgivably irresponsible. The Quadrennial Defense Review is presently underway. The QDR's express purpose is to determine how much of what kinds of forces we need to deter or defeat current and reasonably predictable emerging security threats. Unfortunately, thanks to what President Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the "unwarranted influence" of the military industrial complex, we don't build a force to match the threats. We invent threats that justify spending money on gear we've already decided we want to buy, a practice encouraged and supported by our civilian service secretaries who are former senior executives of America's largest defense contractors.
If by some miracle we ever seriously commit ourselves to right sizing, manning, and equipping our force, we'll need to reverse engineer our strategic force planning process. We need to focus not on what we think we might need, but on what we can be reasonably certain that we don't need.
For starters, we need to dispel the mistaken notion that Iraq has proven we need a bigger Army and Marine Corps. The only reason we would need a larger land force would be to fight more wars like the one we've created in Iraq, and if Iraq has "proven" anything, it's that we don't need to fight any more wars like it.
There are no absolutes in the art and science of war, but as a general rule, land forces must be designed to fight and decisively defeat other land forces. As we've seen in both of the major Gulf Wars, the United States Army and Marine Corps are mighty darn good at doing that.
Historically, land forces have not been good at defeating insurgencies or stepping into the middle of civil wars. As our experience in Iraq after the fall of Hussein's statue illustrates, our Army and Marine Corps aren't very good at that, which is okay, because they aren't supposed to be. They're plenty big enough to do what they're supposed to be good at.
Naval and air forces are something of a different matter. In today's security environment, they can either operate in support of land forces or as independent entities in a battle for maritime and/or air space. Keep in mind, though, that events at sea or in the skies are only relevant to the extent that they affect events on land. For all practical purposes, no other nation or political entity possesses forces that can prevent America's Navy and Air Force from dominating their respective environments, or prevent them from supporting our forces on the ground. In terms of maritime and aerospace power, we're so far ahead of the world that the rest of the world will never catch up. They aren't even going to try. Why should they? What would be the point of breaking their economies trying to build sea and sky forces that could never compete with ours?
So the question of naval and air power is not how much more of it does America need, but how much of what it has now can it afford to do without?
What potential wars will our conventional sea, air, and land forces need to either deter or fight and win in the next half-century or so? I only see two potential scenarios.
One would be to repel an attempted invasion of Taiwan by Mainland China. That would largely be a problem of interdicting China's air and maritime forces, which our Navy and Air Force are more than three times large enough to handle. The relatively tight battle space in the Formosa Strait presents certain tactical challenges, but turning back an assault from the mainland would be a one-day affair.
The second scenario is a replay of the Korean War in which the North invades the South. That's primarily a land power problem that would require support from sea and air forces. We've been preparing South Korea for that contingency for more than fifty years, and a second Korean War would require far less U.S. involvement than the first one did.
Other stuff could happen, of course. We might need to come to the direct defense of Israel, for example, but the Israeli's have a pretty good track record of defending themselves. (Albeit, with considerable financial assistance from us. But financial assistance and direct military assistance are very different things.)
Somebody like Iran might decide to have another go at invading a free and independent Iraq--if such a thing as a free and independent Iraq ever exists--but having watched America's "best trained, best equipped, best funded" force muddle its way through a rag tag insurgency, what country would want to repeat the experience?
Something or other is likely to go down in Africa and the Balkans, but we've already put troops in those regions and gotten nothing out of the experience but burned fingers. Why would we want to do it again?
The Russians aren't going to do anything overly aggressive. For all the fear and loathing they've caused the western world over the past few centuries, they've never been worth a fiddler's flatulence at projecting military power beyond their own borders. Their air force is grounded for lack of proper maintenance, their navy is rusting at the pier or gathering crust at the bottom of the ocean, and its army is burning in Chechnya.
So how much military does America need?
My back-of-the-envelope calculation says we could cut spending on our conventional military forces in half and nobody would notice the difference except for the politicians who'd have to explain to their constituents where all those defense industry jobs went to, and how they let their states and districts become so economically dependent on the military industrial complex.