Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is right on the money. His declaration Monday that the United States should trim military spending was a nod at several realities — the reality of budget constraints, the reality of modern military efficiencies, and the reality of how much money is necessary to keep our nation safe.
Bolstering Hagel's assertion is this jaw-dropping truth: According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. in 2012 had a larger military budget than the countries with the next 10 largest defense budgets. In other words, the United States spent more on defense than the combined total of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil. A little more perspective: In 2011, 20 percent of the United States' federal budget was spent on defense — and that number doesn't include benefits for veterans.
Hagel's budget proposal would trim the size of the Army to about 440,000 active troops, the lowest number since before World War II. It would include cuts for each branch of the military, including reserves. It would retire the A-10 "Warthog" attack jet at a savings of about $3.5 billion over five years. And, most of all, it would make special operations a more integral part of a modernized military. "This is a budget that recognizes the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, the dangerous world we live in, and the American military's unique and indispensable role in the security of this country and in today's volatile world," Hagel said.
Pointing out that undeniable reality is the easy part. Selling it to Congress will be an entirely different challenge -- especially with midterm elections coming up. Several Republicans already have spoken out against the plan.
The diabolical brilliance of America's military system is the fact that its tentacles reach into nearly every nook and cranny of the country. A total of 47 states — all but Minnesota, Iowa, and Vermont — have military bases. That might make us susceptible to an invasion from Manitoba, but it also makes military budgets nearly impervious to cuts because so many Congressional districts are reliant upon military dollars. In Washington, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, three of the state's 25 largest employers are military installations, with Joint Base Lewis-McChord ranking second behind Boeing.
"What we're trying to do is solve our financial problems on the backs of our military, and that can't be done," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Post.
On the contrary, what we're trying to do is deal with the reality that the United States can remain the world's pre-eminent power without spending more on defense than the next 10 nations combined. What we're trying to do is recognize the fact that Americans can remain safe without 20 percent of the federal budget going to defense. Military spending has become so bloated that Congressional members find themselves arguing to keep soldiers just for the sake of maintaining jobs in their district, not in the interests of ensuring security. It is time to ponder how that money can be better spent.
Hagel's proposed cuts will be part of the 2015 fiscal year budget President Obama sends to Congress, and the military budget is certain to engender plenty of grandstanding on the part of Congressional members. Yet, as Hagel surmised, "This is a time for reality."