Military budget must reflect world realities

Results from the Pentagon’s recent review of strategic efficiency in the U.S. military provide President Clinton and Congress with an opportunity to reduce defense spending and bolster the agreement to balance the budget. Last week, Pentagon officials and Congressional lawmakers involved in preparing the Quadrennial Defense Review recommended the elimination of tens of thousands of troops from the military’s payroll. The report also advised the termination of outdated weapons and equipment production that costs the government billions of dollars each year.
Defense secretary William Cohen says the Pentagon will likely use any savings to help fund a new generation of weapons. But given the number and strength of America’s foreign military menaces have diminished substantially in recent years, the government should bank some of the savings and reduce defense spending to more reasonable levels. Sustaining American military superiority is crucial, but it should no longer cost $250 billion a year, which is the Pentagon’s current take from the federal budget.
The report’s call for revisions to the cold war-era doctrine that requires the armed forces to be ready to fight two large wars at the same time is testimony to the relative weakness of potential enemies. Some members of Congress, nevertheless, want to increase defense spending because of concerns that the Pentagon’s $250 billion budget for 1998 is smaller than it was in 1985. Clearly, making reductions will require recognition that cold war spending benchmarks are no longer appropriate. Most defense spending from 1947 to 1992 targeted programs for dealing with the Soviet Union and its allies, a threat that no longer persists.
Certainly, the United States cannot be lax when it comes to protecting the nation’s security. Iraq continues to pose a threat to American interests in the Persian Gulf. Defense department officials also fear that North Korea, overwrought by famine and political instability, may implode or seek relief by renewing hostilities with South Korea. The United States must also continue to redefine its relationship with China, which is striving to become a substantial military power in the next century. Terrorist activity against the United States also remains a constant concern, and deployment of American troops for peace-keeping purposes is certain to increase. Still, there is no current or near-term peril that matches the Soviet threat and justifies maintaining massive military expenditures.
The Pentagon’s plan to institute a one-war doctrine will save the government between $10 billion and $20 billion a year — savings that could be used to help balance the budget. The recent decision to close and consolidate a number of bases and other support operations will free up additional funds that shouldn’t automatically be reinvested in more sophisticated weaponry. Even the defense department concedes that it can provide American security for considerably less than $250 billion a year. Politicians and special interest groups representing private defense manufacturing can’t be permitted to obstruct efforts to trim military spending to levels more appropriate for a post-cold war world.