Editorial: Shrinking defense spending could make us stronger
Significant cuts to defense spending like those proposed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are more likely to strengthen the nation economically and militarily than weaken it. That made the response to the proposed cuts by all four members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation disappointing, if predictable. All expressed fears that the cuts were too deep; all vowed to protect the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from any new attempt to lose unneeded military bases.
The four members are in a strong position to influence future military spending. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee. First District Rep. Carol Shea-Porter sits on the House Armed Services Committee, and 2nd District Rep. Annie Kuster serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Like every member of Congress with a military base, defense industry jobs or a National Guard force in their state, they are concerned about the loss of jobs and federal money that might come with the cuts. The tendency, call it a strategy if you want, is to claim that reduced spending will threaten national security, yet the opposite might be true.
Reducing the nation’s standing army from 520,000 soldiers currently to 440,000 or 450,000 would leave the United States with fewer troops than at any time since 1940, a fact critics point to with alarm. But a smaller force does not mean one less able to keep the nation secure, particularly if its composition changes to reflect different threats in different times. Instead, the proposed reductions are a recognition that two of the longest wars in American history, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have come or are coming to an end. They recognize too, that the ever-escalating price of maintaining a huge fighting force and paying veterans retirement benefits and health care expenses and subsidizing housing, education and other costs for so many people reduces the military’s ability to spend on the technology and innovations needed to fight the conflicts of the future.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost taxpayers nearly $1.3 trillion, but that does not include the estimated $3 trillion to $5 trillion cost of providing long-term medial care, disability payments and other compensation to veterans and their families. Nearly half of the 1.6 million veterans from those two wars have already applied for disability benefits.
In the aftermath of World War II, President Dwight Eisenhower, the former Allied commander in Europe, led the battle to cut defense spending because he recognized that it hurt the nation’s ability to spend on things that make a nation strong in war and peace: highways and other infrastructure, education and innovation and peacetime jobs. He famously warned of the danger that comes when spending decisions are driven by the demands of a military-industrial complex:
“We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations. Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society,” Eisenhower said in his farewell address.
If the cuts proposed by Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, are made, the United States will still spend more on defense than all of its allies combined. The savings that result could be used to raise the quality of American education; rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure; support the research and development of clean energy technologies, high-tech manufacturing and innovations in health care; prepare for climate change and do the myriad other things that become affordable when a nation spends what it must on swords and as much as it can on plowshares.