Outside Editorial: Pruning the Pentagon

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Monday, Jan. 9:

The federal government has a big problem with spending more than it takes in, and closing the gap is going to get harder in the coming years. So it’s reasonable for President Barack Obama to conclude that, along with other parts of the government, the Pentagon is going to have to trim down. Done carefully and gradually, the downsizing can be done without jeopardizing national security.

Some Republicans in Congress strenuously object. California Rep. Duncan Hunter, a member of the Armed Services Committee, called the administration’s proposed cuts “severe and disproportionate.” Arizona Sen. John McCain said they would “give the perception of American weakness” and place the country “in the greatest peril” in decades.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, though, defense spending today is the highest it has been since World War II. Under Obama’s plan, the Pentagon budget would rise enough each year to keep up with inflation — meaning its purchasing power would not diminish. Its priorities for spending that money, though, would shift. That’s where the debate needs to be. Yes, a curb in defense spending growth is justified, but will the shift in priorities protect the nation?

The United States would continue to lay out more for the military than the next 10 countries combined. “Our military will be leaner,” declared the president, “but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority.”

Doing so would be much harder if the president and Congress fail to agree this year on a plan to cut the deficit — in which case, big additional defense cuts would automatically kick in over the next decade.

That’s a good reason for our leaders to get serious about getting our fiscal house in order. If the extra reductions can be averted, there will be plenty of money to address the dangers that loom.

Congress should demand that the administration defend its plan to scale the Army back from 570,000 troops to 490,000.

Obama says the lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan is that the U.S. should avoid prolonged, large-scale ground wars. But if there’s one thing Americans have learned in the last decade, it’s that the fight you expect may not be the one you get. Would the reduced number of troops suffice in case of a war — prompted, say, by a North Korean invasion of South Korea or an attack by terrorists who have been given a safe haven in Iran — that demands a large number of troops on the ground?

The administration wants to put greater emphasis on naval and air forces, while beefing up our capacity to gather intelligence and foil cyber-attacks. One obvious concern is China, which clearly plans to expand its maritime power to counter our Pacific fleet. Another is Iran, with its threat to disrupt global oil supplies by closing the Strait of Hormuz.

Those dangers explain Obama’s refusal to cut the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to 10. Drones and special forces, crucial for going after al-Qaida and other shadowy terrorist groups, will also get priority funding.

It would be easier for the Defense Department, of course, if Congress and the president would simply continue the generous financing of the past decade. But consuming one-fifth of the federal budget, the Pentagon faces the same obligation as other departments to justify every dollar spent and eliminate any task that is not essential. It faces one obligation other departments don’t face — protect the nation.

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