Congress should look to the future to see what we want our military to do, not assume every war to come will be one of "nation building." We should instruct our representatives to develop a strategy that leverages US technologies, protects the industrial base, and maximizes US advantages. An element of this strategy is to project US power forward … so we don’t have to fight on our nation’s shore, but do so abroad.
Current base defense spending is 3.5% of GDP, almost at a post-WWII low, little more than half the Health and Human Services budget. Never before in US history have we cut defense spending in wartime. Congressional decision makers must understand that the budget deficit is not caused by defense spending; last year's defense budget could have been zero and we would still have a trillion dollar deficit.
How to do it? Does the mandate to cut $1T over 10 years mean one cuts $100B per year? Or can we cut less in the early years and more in the later years? The harshest way to cut is the former. They need to look at the various categories of spending. First there is Research & Development (R&D) spending, that amounts to only 2-3% of the Defense budget. It is generally a bad place to look for savings, for R&D is the future. R&D results in the US keeping its technological edge over any future adversary.
Acquisition funding is usually hooked to contracts that have high termination costs. A recent study pointed out the acquisition funding as compared to R&D funding has fallen about 30% in the past decade. This means that the Services have old, tired, and worn out equipment that they are not replacing fast enough. They need to reconstitute our forces. Every time in the last century when our military was reduced, it eventually cost us more to rebuild.
The Services, in the FY12 budget request, asked for about $12-15B in military construction funding (that directly influences 'the economy'.) It is this money that is going to eliminate high energy bills, permit adequate housing for families (thereby reducing funding for recruitment and training for the people who leave), repair existing facilities to include runways, roads, bridges, buildings and infrastructure. At only 2.5% of the DOD budget, it is money well spent.
Operations and Maintenance (O&M) funds everything from civilian personnel, flying hours, tank driving miles, and ship sailing days to munitions and training. Much of it is to fund our wartime expenses and to keep our forces trained and ready. We learned from the hollow-force years of the late 1970s--and the '20s and '30s--that we make significant cuts in this area at our peril. Significant cuts in this area will come as we reduce our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and avoid entanglements in the future. Beyond that, we will have to retire equipment and lay off civilians to get to real savings.
Presently, the US Navy and the US Air Force personnel levels are near all-time post WWII lows. To save money in military personnel (which amounts to almost 35% of the DOD budget), you have to reduce manning. This can be done, but increases pressure on the remaining force and drives longer deployments to (now, mostly) Afghanistan. To get to a 20% cut in military personnel, we would have to “lay off” almost 300,000 troops.
To make serious cuts to Defense, "the powers that be" will decrease our presence on the ground in Afghanistan, fire civilians, reduce training, retire equipment, and reduce programs. This requires a re-look in what type of defenses we need in the future.
Smart thinking argues we should leverage our technology to reconstitute our forces; rely on an Air, Space, Cyber, and Naval strategy; and, as former Defense Secretary Gates has said, stop deploying ground forces into Asia, the Middle East, and Africa – where we end up with attrition warfare, high casualties and burdensome costs.
The basic question to ask decision makers: Are we in a time in our history where we cannot afford an insurance policy of 3% of our GDP for our security? For our children and our grandchildren’s sake, we must hope not. If voters don't take an interest in informing their Congressional representatives of the need for critical thinking and appropriate action, like the British Empire the grand experiment envisioned by our Founding Fathers is destined to fail, victim to more determined foes.