Small Decreases in Spending, No Decrease in Commitment

There is no doubt in my mind that the Department of Defense (DoD) will face a trimming of its budget in the near future. DoD has already made some smaller cuts, and is anticipating more. A cut in the military budget will naturally limit some capabilities, but it will not reflect a fundamental change in U.S. military commitments overseas. The fact remains that deep cuts would greatly harm U.S. military capabilities, and any significant decrease in U.S. commitment could lead to destabilizing situations around the world.

The $885 billion spent on defense may seem a bit eye-popping at first, but this must be put into perspective by considering it as a percentage of GDP. As of 2009, U.S. defense spending was around 4.7% of GDP. Historically, this is not a high number for the U.S. In fact, with the exception of one year, this number is lower than at any point during the Cold War. One may argue that the threat is not as great today as it was then, but consider the fact that defense spending, even when one includes the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, does not remotely compare to defense spending levels as a percent of GDP during either Vietnam or Korea, the only other two post-WWII conflicts that can compare in length or scope.

Even if one is still in favor of cuts, what should be cut? Want to keep our soldiers safe from IEDs while they are in Iraq or Afghanistan? Then be prepared to cough up the money for the MRAP, a vehicle meant to protect against such attacks. The Army has a need for thousands of them, and they cost $500,000 per vehicle. Want our soldiers to be paid well and work with functioning equipment? Operations, maintenance, and personnel costs account for almost two-thirds of defense spending (see table 3.2). The vast majority of the rest of the spending is in procurement and research and development. These can be cut, but then you have to accept that outdated equipment such as the 35-year-old F-15 fighter jet will have to continue being used for decades. The easiest cut to make would be reducing the number of soldiers/sailors in the U.S. military and navy. If you do so, however, be prepared to acknowledge that you are putting tens of thousands of young men and women out of work, many of them without a college education.

Just as important is the fact that if the U.S. does scale back its commitments, no nation could fill the void. The low defense spending of Europe has already been discussed on PolicyMic, and the United Kingdom, with one of the better funded militaries in Europe, is making severe cutbacks. China is a rising power, but is still very far behind, and even if it were able to catch up, this is no guarantee that international politics will move in a favorable way for the West. 

Like it or not, the U.S. military is greatly responsible for the world order we see today. The Navy, being the sole blue-water navy in the world, is responsible for maintaining open and safe sea lanes used by nearly every cargo ship. U.S. commitments in Taiwan and South Korea are what help keep these nations safe from belligerent neighbors. Even Vietnam, a nation that has every right to hate the U.S., has been strengthening relations with the United States in an effort to counter its rising neighbor, China. 

Whenever a nation takes an aggressive action around the world, one of the first questions they must ask is what the reaction of the United States will be. The world is not a peaceful place. China still contends that Taiwan should be part of their nation. Colombia and Venezuela came very close to trading blows in 2009. People seem to forget that much of the current world order relies not on U.S. force per se, but the ability of the U.S. to use such force if necessary. In that sense, the U.S. is in many ways a "global policeman." Believing that the U.S. can scale back its military commitment on the world stage and not have a direct impact on global security is folly. The situation will resemble what would happen if the police in a city began to cut back their responsibilities or disappeared altogether.

Chaos is likely to follow.

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