Midlands Voices: Cuts in defense spending need not imperil military

FRIDAY JUNE 17, 2011

The writer, of Dunlap, Iowa, is a retired sergeant major in the U.S. Army.

In a June 11 Public Pulse letter, retired Capt. George Autobee opined that “former House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) is absolutely right that the defense budget cuts now being proposed in Washington, D.C., would hurt our national security.”

Capt. Autobee went on to say that the cuts would “endanger the lives of our troops fighting on the front lines by slashing funding for essential equipment.” To support his contentions, he used the example of cuts that he says Congress is considering for the Brigade Combat Team Modernization Program (BCTM).

While I honor Capt. Autobee’s and former Congressman Skelton’s service to our country, I believe both are engaging in hyperbole.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States is responsible for 42 percent of the world’s expenditures on defense. We spend more than the next 17 nations combined. We spend nearly six times as much as China, the next highest-spending nation. We have more than 200,000 service members stationed in 144 countries around the globe, with another 20,000 sailors and Marines deployed aboard Navy ships.

Combine the number of service members deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the total reaches around 317,000 service members deployed worldwide. Many of these are deployed in European and Asian countries that are facing no discernible military threat and which could easily pay for their own defense. These deployments seem to be an area ripe for cutting.

An opinion piece by retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, recently published in Foreign Policy magazine, suggests that we can safely curb our military expenditures by $239 billion annually by reducing our overseas commitments. Many other analysts are making similar recommendations.

These cuts represent only one area in which cuts could safely be made. Last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposed elimination of the Joint Forces Command in Virginia at an annual savings of approximately $240 million. It was a modest proposal and part of a series of cuts proposed by the secretary.

However, Secretary Gates’ proposal was slammed by Virginia’s congressional delegation. The reasons for this are instructive and, taken with Capt. Autobee’s letter and former Congressman Skelton’s speech, go a long way toward explaining the current financial crisis facing our nation.

The Virginia congressional delegation did not oppose the closing of the Joint Forces Command because of military necessity. They could not oppose the closing for military reasons because the individual responsible for determining our military needs — the secretary of defense — said we did not need the command.

The sole justification for their opposition was that Virginia stood to lose $240 million.

The same scenario plays itself out in every congressional district in the country. When the Pentagon wanted to close military installations at the end of the Cold War, Congress found itself unable to act because each congressional delegation opposed cuts in its own districts. The problem got so bad that Congress was forced to establish a commission to oversee the closure process — to do the job the Constitution requires of Congress.

Now, before blaming Congress, please understand that members of Congress justifiably believe they are stuck in a Catch-22. Their constituents tell them they must cut spending, but they also must use their good offices to send money and business back to their respective districts.

No one seems willing to admit that these two goals are diametrically opposed.

Then former Congressman Skelton, Capt. Autobee and other experts come along and further muddy the waters. They do this by creating worst-case scenarios designed to make all cuts unpalatable and by failing to tell us they have skin in the game — that the organizations they represent stand to lose money if we make substantial cuts.

For example, Mr. Skelton now works for a firm that makes money in the defense contracting-law business. Cuts in defense spending would take money away from the people who pay Skelton to travel the country urging us not to cut defense spending.

Is it any wonder that we find ourselves in our current financial dilemma? There are answers to these problems, but they require honesty and hard choices. Are we ready to put forth the effort?

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