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Still, the biggest savings available here can be found in the yawning gap between the 56 nations we are obliged to protect and the 12 countries a majority of Americans supports defending. If the global mission is reduced, the cost will be too. Simply put, fewer troops are needed to defend the United States than are needed to police the world. Just bringing home U.S. troops currently deployed in Western Europe and Japan would result in direct savings of about $25 billion per year.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged in 2010 at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Exposition “the massive overmatch the U.S. already enjoys,” asking: “Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities.” A Protect America First strategy would concentrate fleets closer to home and reduce the number of aircraft carriers, airplanes, submarines, support staff, and sailors.
All of these changes would reduce procurement budgets because the military wouldn’t need as many new weapons, ships, and aircraft each year. Considering that there are more than 80 weapons systems that cost more than $1 billion a year, reducing procurement would lead to real savings overnight. Training and recruiting costs would also go down, as would administrative costs and the number of civilian support personnel.
Veterans’ Affairs. If we cut back on the number of soldiers today, we cut back on the number of veterans we need to serve in the future. If we suffer fewer casualties now, we will have fewer disability payments, lower medical costs, and fewer survivors’ benefits in the future.
It sounds pretty basic, and it is. But the impact is huge. By reducing the number of soldiers today, we will reduce the total spending burden we are passing on to future generations by trillions of dollars. Consider these facts, from Cato’s Christopher Preble: “Of the 700,000 men and women who served in the Gulf War, 45 percent filed for disability benefits, and 88 percent of these requests were approved. On average, disabled Gulf War veterans receive $6,506 every year; this amounts to $4.3 billion paid out annually by the U.S. government.” That’s the cost paid every year for veterans of just one military engagement.
The savings won’t show up right away in reduced budgets, since today’s budget reflects the price we pay for yesterday’s veterans. But as with other unfunded liabilities, that accounting issue says more about the faulty way we measure federal budgets and deficits than it does about the magnitude of the savings.
Even with all these reductions, the U.S. would enjoy an unmatched capability in military strength and technology.
A New Balance
By reducing the number of strategic commitments in places such as Europe and Japan, we can return military spending to 2001 levels, adjusted for population and inflation. Some might balk at setting targets for defense spending and then expecting the military to fit within those parameters, but that’s exactly what Dwight Eisenhower did in the 1950s. Ike recognized the need to balance military power with domestic resources. It would be irrational to demand that the military continue policing the world with a reduced budget, but it is quite rational to expect the military to accomplish the narrower mission of Protect America First with a budget appropriate for that role.
These reductions would still allow around $420 billion in annual military spending, nearly three times as much as what China or anybody else in the world currently shells out. And that spending level would be much more in line with voter preferences. If anything, it might be a bit on the high side: Just 25 percent of voters believe the United States should always spend at least three times as much as any other nation; 40 percent think such a target is excessive.
Once the initial cutbacks and savings have been fully implemented over five to 10 years, it would be essential to set in place some long-term budgetary discipline within a more rational federal spending outlook. As long as the strategic environment remains the same, annual military spending increases should be pegged to population growth and inflation. If a new military rival emerged, obviously, it would be time for a new strategic assessment. But as of 2012 it’s difficult to envision a serious military rival that could threaten the territory of the United States.
There is no magic to choosing the 2001 defense budget as a starting point, but it does have the advantage of clarifying the strategic choices. If we spend as much today as we did in 2001 but reduce our legacy commitments from the World War II era, we could cut overall spending levels while devoting additional resources to fighting the challenges of the post-9/11 world.
The specifics of how to recalculate defense spending should be the focus of intense debate and experimentation. Voters clearly believe the focus should be more on defending the United States rather than the whole world. Substantial resources would still be deployed to address the terrorist threat and probably also to help secure the southern border of the United States.
Many on both sides of the partisan and ideological divides will be unhappy with this approach to military spending. That’s especially true of a political elite that supports the Send Americans First status quo. For them, there is a simple solution: If you don’t like the Protect America First strategy, go to your boss, the American people. If there are arguments to be made for a wider U.S. engagement and for interventions in places such as Libya, make them. If there are reasons to leave U.S. troops in Europe forever, state them. If we need to spend more, build support for the taxes needed to finance that spending.
But don’t sacrifice America’s greatest asset—our commitment to self-governance—to pursue a far more aggressive and costly military strategy than the American people are willing to support. Americans have rejected Washington’s bipartisan foreign policy. It’s time for politicians to take the hint.