More Pentagon Follies

News Abroad

William L. O'Neill is professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University. He is the author of "A Bubble in Time: America During the Interwar Years, 1989-2001."

Now that cutting federal expenditures has affected even the Obama administration it is time for a complete and drastic review of military spending.  For years Republicans have insisted that the only test of one’s patriotism is a willingness to throw vast sums of money at the armed forces.  Now, as the deficits swell Democrats, and even some Republicans, have begun to question whether we need the incredibly bloated defense establishment with which we are currently saddled.  In 2009 the Pentagon’s budget came to $653 billion.  This figure did not include the costs of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, which amounted to an additional $200 billion, nor did it include the cost of maintaining the stockpile of nuclear weapons that is born by the Department of Energy, nor the fifty to seventy percent of the funding for Homeland Security that is devoted to military purposes.  It also omits the half of NASA’s budget that is military in nature.  Thus, without even counting the Veterans Administration that pays for past wars, the annual costs of present and future wars easily exceed one trillion dollars a year.  If we wish to reduce fraud, waste and abuse, there is no better place to start than our fat-filled military establishment.  Instead, Republicans want to cut spending for health care, foreign aid, federal oversight and regulation, the environment, education, scientific research, and anything else that does not help rich people become richer.

With all due respect to Robert M. Gates, our finest secretary of defense ever, much more can be done to cut military costs than ending the outrageous F-22 construction program, which to his everlasting credit he did.  The F-22 was designed to defeat a Soviet fighter that never got built owing to the collapse of the USSR.  Even so, nearly two hundred of these planes have been deployed, each costing hundreds of millions of dollars.  As their only function is to engage non-existent enemy aircraft, they have never flown in combat.  Yet, despite his willingness to cut absurd weapons systems, Gates is committed to maintaining the current military establishment in essentially its present form, and has not pulled the plug on the Marine’s Osprey aircraft, the Navy’s littoral vessel, and other needless luxuries.  Even during the Cold War we were probably over-armed, but with its end the grotesquely outsized nature of our armed forces is all too clear.  For instance, we maintain eleven supercarriers and another is under construction.  With one (minor) exception all of these displace more than a hundred thousand tons each. No other nation has even a single ship this big. Russia has one 65,000-ton carrier, France has a single carrier in the same class, and Britain is building two similar carriers, although their fate remains uncertain given the Cameron government’s austerity program.

The reason why no one else owns, or is planning to own, supercarriers like those in our Nimitz class is because they are both incredibly costly and hard to defend. In the age of nuclear submarines and anti-ship missiles, jumbo carriers are sitting ducks and must be surrounded by surface warships and attack subs. A carrier battle group is very expensive to build and maintain, the carrier alone having a crew of more than five thousand sailors. Yet 90 percent of a group’s firepower is devoted to self-defense, meaning that the country gets very little bang for its carrier buck. Short-range carrier-based aircraft rarely perform tasks that land-based aircraft and drones cannot do as well (and more cheaply). Last year the New York Times Magazine described a strike against targets in Afghanistan launched from a carrier in the Indian Ocean that required five mid-air refuelings to get the planes out and back.  At a time when drones like the Predator can loiter over targets for up to twelve hours this makes absolutely no sense. We also have over seventy attack submarines roaming the oceans in search of a mission.  Were it not for the death grip that the military-industrial complex has on Congress, other needless expenditures could surely be found.

Of course the United States cannot unilaterally disarm.  And it must stay ahead of China, the only nation today that is both bullying its neighbors and expanding its forces.  Since China spends perhaps one-tenth as much on its military as we do, there remains room for huge reductions in military expenditures without jeopardizing national defense or our most important overseas obligations.

Despite the possibility of vast savings we should not expect much in the way of military reforms.  The military-industrial complex loses some games but always wins the match. 

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