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U.S. Defense Decimated by Debt?

U.S. Defense Decimated by Debt?

The Congressional supercommittee charged with finding trillions of dollars in debt reduction has failed in their mission, opening the door to a drastic reduction in the U.S. federal budget. Like most people I would assume that debt reductions would take place in a calm and orderly manner, with decisions on reductions made by adults who can evaluate and prioritize both the areas and scope of reductions so that vital programs and services would not be undermined. Now that the members of the supercommittee have abjectly failed in their mission and let their institution, their constituents, and the people of the county down, massive cuts will be implemented without the careful consideration they should have provided. So great is their failure that I can only hope that the members of this committee will be subjected to levels of scorn and ridicule unparalleled in the history of modern politics. Their failure not only endangers government programs we have all come to support, it also has the potential of directly endangering the safety and welfare of every American citizen. Why? As one of the largest areas of the federal budget (but still less than entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid), U.S. defense spending will be dramatically and adversely impacted by the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that are soon to be triggered in the aftermath of this failure of Congressional leadership.

The website Politico notes that in a sobering letter to Senator McCain (R-AZ) sent earlier this month, Defense Secretary Panetta warned that automatic spending cuts would be devastating:

Facing such large reductions, we would have to reduce the size of  the military sharply. Rough estimates suggest after ten years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of  ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history. We would also be forced to terminate most large procurement programs in order to accommodate modernization reductions that are likely to  be required.

Can the U.S. accept a navy comparable to the one we had in 1916, an army comparable to that of the 1940’s, or an air force smaller than it’s ever been? With so many threats all over the world it’s difficult to imagine that this is the right time for such cuts. You may be surprised to learn that there are those who believe that this is precisely the right time. Scholars who study war and conflict say that there has rarely been such a peaceful and stable time in all of human history. Really. It may sound counter-intuitive, but studies of political violence, wars, insurrections, civil wars, rebellions and the like suggest that the chances of the average person facing death due to any of those historically common events are very low at this point in time. Why? This report answers that question with terms near and dear to political scientists everywhere: the democratic peace, hegemonic stability, and the impact of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). So, given a relatively peaceful era (if you accept this argument), why not go for a peace dividend?

The answer to that question, of course, is as near as the arrest of the latest wannabe terrorist bomber in New York City and as far away as Afghanistan and Iran. And beyond the threats we can identify there are emerging threats, like cyberwarfare, that our military of the early years of the last century never had to contend with. The threats we face are real and we can’t just ask our enemies for a time-out while we get our finances in order.

Still, there’s no doubt that many Americans support defense cuts. The Foreign Policy Association recently polled participants of their Great Decisions national civic-education program and found that, “49 percent of survey respondents think the Obama Administration should either reduce the defense budget or increase taxes.” This poll is considered significant because the sample group is composed of people who have taken the time to study foreign policy issues in-depth and are considered to be educated and informed opinion-leaders in their communities.

Given the failure of the supercommittee, defense cuts are coming, that’s guaranteed, we can only hope that Congress will yet find a way to make sure those cuts are made in a manner that does not undermine our national security.

Image Credit: Pew analysis of Congressional Budget Office Data



Joel Davis

Joel Davis is the Director of Online Services at the International Studies Association in Tucson, Arizona. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona, where he received his B.A. in Political Science and Master's degree in International Relations. He has lived in the UK, Italy and Eritrea, and his travels have taken him to Canada, Brazil, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Greece.

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Areas of Focus:
State Department; Diplomacy; US Aid; and Alliances.

Contact Joel by e-mail at [email protected].