COMMENTARY | Realism has finally hobbled one of America’s sacred cows. The vaunted U.S. military, once given virtually anything it desired, now faces new rounds of sweeping budget cuts, reports CNN. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stands ready to downside America’s ground forces to their smallest level since World War II, prompting both widespread praise and criticism. Proponents of the cuts applaud Washington’s realism and commonsense focus on economic growth while critics decry the possibility of an understrength America being forced to fight wars on the cheap against emboldened foes.
Hagel is proposing to reduce the Army to as few as 440,000 troops, a stark contrast from its post-9/11 high of 570,000. The simple and popular A-10 Warthog ground-support bomber, known for its iconic nose-mounted minigun, is set to be removed from operation. Controversially, the costly F-35 fighter jet, widely known for its exorbitant price tag and cost overruns, remains in the new lineup, as do all existing eleven nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. And, despite massive cuts to regular Army operations, cyberwarfare and special operations are actually getting a boost.
The idea, apparently, is to focus on a military that strikes faster.
Though I applaud the cuts to defense spending as a necessary dose of realism, I doubt that a smaller, faster, and more high-tech military is necessarily the best option. As we have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s easy to wrest a foreign dictatorship from power but much harder to win the “peace” that follows. The Taliban in Afghanistan put up relatively little organized resistance in the months after 9/11. Saddam Hussein’s armies in Iraq crumbled, disbanded, or surrendered en masse in 2003. The insurgencies and guerrilla wars that followed were much bloodier than the initial invasions themselves.
Focusing on cutting numbers of soldiers, rather than paring down per-unit costs, may be a costly blunder. America still needs a solid reserve of military manpower for occupations of defeated regions, particularly in areas where insurgencies are likely. After all, didn’t the situation in Iraq improve after the “surge” that brought in thousands of additional occupying troops? Would the F-35 fighter jet be of much help against a post-war insurgency or lengthy guerrilla war, such as we experienced in the cities in Iraq? Do we still need eleven aircraft carriers in the lineup when our biggest rival, China, possesses only one and has stated an interest in having no more than three?
Limiting military raises, as Hagel proposes, is a good start but avoids getting down into the meat of the issue. We are simply spending too much money per soldier, mainly through benefits costs. We cannot support a large force where many of the soldiers are expected to provide for multiple dependents. To maintain a large enough military but cut per-unit costs we must limit the number of military personnel who provide benefits to dependents.
Cutting defense spending is a positive move, but the current proposals do not reflect a realization of where the real overspending lies. Instead of improving cost-efficiency the military is focused on simple downsizing, which may have few long-term benefits. We cannot ignore the harsh realities of what is required in a ground occupation of a defeated foreign power.