Star Spangled Candour: An Expatriate’s Observations on American Politics and World Events

This column will examine the issues transforming America in the wake of President Obama’s reelection. This author promises to take a candid look at both foreign and domestic policy matters in question. Whether it is defense spending, gun control, women in combat or the deficit, no controversial issue will be overlooked.

President Obama’s highly contentious nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel for the newly vacated position of Defense Secretary has run into Republican opposition in the Senate. Despite being a former Republican senator and a veteran of the Vietnam War, Senate Republicans are uncomfortable with Mr. Hagel’s support of streamlining what he has called a ‘bloated defense budget.’

Image courtesy of dbking, © 2007, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of dbking, © 2007, some rights reserved.

The United States is far and away the biggest military spender in the world. In 2011, the world’s top ten military powers spent a combined $1.19 trillion on defense, with the United States accounting for 58 percent of that spending. The United States outspent China, the second biggest military spender, an astonishing 6-1.

At a time when the national debt and deficit have been become national security issues themselves, a departure from the neoconservative attitude towards defense spending is a responsible, much-needed approach to secure American national security interests. The economic crisis as well as the drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan have created an atmosphere that should be conducive to a bipartisan strategy for decreased spending. According to James Surowiecki of the New Yorker, decreasing the budget following war has historically been a customary practice. For example, President Eisenhower cut defense spending by 27 percent; after Vietnam, Nixon cut it by 29 percent; and, after the end of the Cold War, the defense budget was cut by 20 percent.  However, despite Republican complaints of uncontrolled spending, defense seems to be the only expense that they do not want to approach frugally.

In the final 2012 Presidential debate, Republican presidential candidate Mitt. Romney accused President Obama of neglecting national security, using the size of the Navy as his example. The exchange between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama is indicative of the negative attitude towards a decrease in military spending typical of Mr. Romney’s party. Mr. Obama’s response not only mocked the candidate’s knowledge of the issue, but exposed a general misunderstanding of the United States’ military prowess:

“You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets. We have these things called aircraft carriers and planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines…It’s not a game of battleship where we’re counting ships, it’s ‘What are our capabilities?'”

Having a clear understanding of both capabilities and threats is essential to this debate.  There are quite a few advantages that make the United States one of the most secure nations in modern history. The United States enjoys weak neighbors, immense ocean barriers, a cache of nuclear weapons, and an avaricious budget that allow for the uninhibited build-up of forces. Despite these advantages, the government acts as though the country is at risk of succumbing to traditional military threats. Due to expanding Soviet influence after World War II, the United States created a network of bases and military commands across the globe in order to combat Communism. The United States developed a policy of interventionism, enabling allies to rely solely on the protection granted under the vast American military umbrella.  Policy makers argue that any international instability anywhere is a threat to American security, thus making it difficult for the United States to relinquish their ever-reaching power. However, it is essential that the United States refocus its efforts where it is needed such as the Persian Gulf and East Asia. The U.S. can no longer afford to subsidize their allies’ defense, especially when European nations have cut their own defense budgets in order to alleviate their own deficits. While the United States faces national security threats that require tough and meticulous action, the budget reflects an outdated strategy.

The Obama administration’s defense budget for the 2013 fiscal year freezes the unrestrained growth in military spending that has occurred since 1998. This budget authorizes $525.4 billion for the Pentagon’s baseline budget, reflecting a 1 percent reduction. The Pentagon’s promise to cut $487 billion over the next decade has been met by both applause and apprehension: some critics believe that cuts will have dire consequences for military interests, while others believe that more robust cuts can be made.

According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the Pentagon wasted $46 billion on weapon programs that they later canceled.  These wasted public funds have contributed to the Pentagon’s poor reputation for budget management. By reining in their budget, the Pentagon would be forced to approach their spending in a more cost efficient way.  For example, by shrinking the nuclear arsenal from 5,113 weapons to 311 (the number of weapons that still create sufficient deterrence according to the Air War College and the School for Advanced Space Studies) would save $11 billion a year. The Pentagon could also save $28.67 billion by replacing the troublesome F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program with the equally capable and less expensive F/A-18 E/F. These manned platforms however still come with some disadvantages, because of their time in inventory, the aircraft are older than the pilots flying them.  By implementing new unmanned technologies, like drones, the military can utilize force in a more cost-efficient way.

A potentially nuclear Iran, a nuclear North Korea, and the continuing penetration of cyber attacks are some examples of dangers that cannot be countered with just a large military budget.  Mr. Hagel has proven himself through subtle, thoughtful analysis of the challenges facing the United States in the 21st century.  While at times his views may seem unconventional, his approach is a healthy change for the Department of Defense. The United States has paraded itself as the most powerful military force in the world, now it should work to be the most lean and efficient.