Opinion polls consistently show that the U.S. military is the most trusted institution in America. Republicans have benefited indirectly from that hard-won reputation because since the 1970s they have been seen as the strong, hawkish party, while Democrats have had to fight the stigma that they are weak and dovish. Republicans wouldn't throw away that aura—one of their strongest electoral assets—just to reach a budget deal with President Obama. Or would they?
There are persistent and worrisome reports that they might. The Hill newspaper, for instance, claims that Republican budget negotiators have been discussing cutting defense by $600 billion to $700 billion—considerably more than the already indefensible $400 billion in cuts that Obama has said he would like to see over the next decade.
Obama's proposed cuts are bad enough; as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates implicitly warned before leaving office, such deep reductions would seriously impair the military's ability to meet its global commitments. Going beyond what Obama has proposed is simply suicidal—on both substantive and political grounds.
Start with substance: The defense budget did experience a rapid increase during the past decade because of the post-9/11 wars. But the budget is already shrinking—down from $708 billion this fiscal year to $670 billion in the next fiscal year. That's a $38 billion cut, and the budget will decline even more as troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan.
Already the military is feeling the strain of maintaining all of its commitments, including a new war in Libya. Those who suggest, with a straight face, paring back a whopping $700 billion more—even over the course of a number of years—should be forced to explain which missions currently performed by the U.S. armed forces they are willing to sacrifice.
Should we completely pull out of Afghanistan? Even with the overly hasty withdrawal of surge forces ordered by Obama, we still will have 70,000 troops there at the end of next year, costing at least $70 billion. Pulling out troops even faster risks giving jihadists their biggest victory since 9/11.
Perhaps we should stop fighting pirates off the coast of Africa? Stop fighting in Libya so that arch-terrorist Muammar Qaddafi can claim a victory over the West? Stop targeting al Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere? Stop deterring China, North Korea, or Iran? Stop patrolling the Persian Gulf through which much of the world's oil flows? Stop fighting cyberattacks emanating from China and Russia? Stop developing missile defenses to protect the American homeland? Stop supporting Mexico and Colombia in their fights against narcotraffickers? Stop holding military exercises with friendly armed forces from Egypt to the Philippines—exercises that allow us to exert soft power at low cost?
Maybe advocates of budget cuts think we should continue performing all, or most, of those missions with less resources. But that's a cop-out. It's a recipe for stinting on training and personnel, thus creating a “hollow force” of the kind that we last saw in the late 1970s.
The reality is that there is no way the armed forces can perform all, or even most, of their current missions with less money. In fact, despite the growing spending of the past decade for contingency operations, the military has already cancelled a number of important procurement programs. These include the Army's Future Combat System and the Air Force's F-22, the best-in-the-world stealth fighter that was canceled just before China unveiled its own stealth fighter.
For the most part, the armed forces remain reliant on weapons systems designed in the 1960s and 1970s and procured in the 1980s: aircraft such as the A-10, F-15, and F-16, helicopters such as the Apache and Black Hawk, warships such as Los Angeles-class submarines and Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and armored vehicles such as Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. These are all superb weapons, but they are rapidly aging—and are either being overtaken, or soon will be, by competing models produced abroad that are certain to fall into the hands of our enemies.
Moreover, competing powers such as China and Russia are designing weapons such as computer bugs and antisatellite missiles that could render much of our current equipment useless. We will have to develop defenses. And that won't be cheap.
At the same time, the Department of Defense must take care of its people—our most precious asset. There are 1.5 million active-duty military personnel, 750,000 civilian Defense Department employees, and 1.5 million personnel in the Reserves and National Guard. We already spend more on personnel costs ($157 billion this year) than on weapons procurement ($151 billion) and the imbalance is likely to grow in future years, thereby making it even harder to increase our power-projection capabilities. Yet Congress rebuffed Gates's attempts to institute modest co-payments for the fiscally unsustainable Tricare medical system. That was deemed too politically sensitive.
This is part of a pattern: Congress finds it difficult or impossible to cut specific defense programs because they all have powerful constituencies. But mandating “top-line” cuts may be politically palatable as part of a budget deal because lawmakers won't have to make tough choices about which programs to eliminate and which areas of the world to leave undefended.
Cutting defense won't solve our budget woes. The “core” defense budget, $553 billion, is small as a percentage of GDP (3.7 percent) and of the federal budget (15 percent). Nor is it the reason why we are piling up so much debt. To reduce the deficit, lawmakers will have to do something about out-of-control entitlement programs.
If Republicans acquiesce in ruinous cuts to the defense budget, they will cease to be known as Ronald Reagan's heirs. Instead they will be remembered as the party of William E. Borah, Hamilton Fish III, and Gerald Nye. Remember those GOP giants of the 1930s? They thought a strong defense was unaffordable and unnecessary. But their reputations collapsed on December 7, 1941, when we learned (not for the last time) the price of unreadiness. That is a lesson today's Republicans should remember as they negotiate over the budget.