In the years since September 11, 2001, the growth in military spending has gone virtually unchecked, soaring from $287 billion in 2001 to $530 billion last year. And that's before accounting for the primary costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
When those extra war costs are added in, the U.S. spent some $711 billion on its military in 2011 -- more than the next 13 nations combined, which spent a total of $695 billion, according to the Washington Post.
This spending growth is unsustainable, and most reasonable people agree that the military budget must be reined in. In fact, in May 2012 the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank, released the results of a survey which showed the majority of Democrat, Republican and independent voters want to cut military spending more severely than either party has proposed.
"Congress isn't likely to pay much attention here, but it's a reminder that defense cuts tend to be extremely popular," the Post wrote.
They're also extremely necessary, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted on Monday when he unveiled details of the defense spending plan that will be part of the 2015 budget President Barack Obama will submit to Congress next week. The proposal includes shrinking the Army to its smallest size in 74 years, closing bases, cutting back on certain weapons programs, and reducing some benefits for military personnel.
"This is a time for reality," Hagel said, citing budget constraints as well as the need to reshape America's military to confront a "more volatile, more unpredictable" world with a more nimble military, the Associated Press reports.
Following are some of the changes Hagel proposed:
-- The active-duty Army would shrink from today's 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 -- the smallest number since just before World War II.
-- The Army National Guard would drop from 355,000 soldiers to 335,000 by 2017, and the Army Reserve would drop by 10,000, to 195,000. The National Guard also would send its Apache attack helicopters to the active-duty Army in exchange for Black Hawk helicopters more suitable for domestic disaster relief missions.
-- The Navy would keep its 11 aircraft carriers but temporarily remove from active service, 11 of its 22 cruisers while they are modernized. The Navy would reduce from 52 to 32 its purchase of littoral combat ships, which are smaller vessels designed to operate closer to shore.
-- The Air Force would retire its fleet of A-10 "Warthog" tank-killer planes for an estimated savings of $3.5 billion over five years. It also would retire the U-2 spy plane, which debuted early in the Cold War as a stalwart of U.S. intelligence.
Hagel acknowledged that these cutbacks do not come without some risks, noting that a smaller U.S. force "strains our ability to simultaneously respond" to multiple global crises. However, he said the nation can afford a smaller military so long as it retains a technological edge and puts more emphasis on versatile, agile forces that can project power over great distances.
"The truth is that the United States cannot afford the larger force indefinitely, and it doesn't need it," the New York Times wrote in a recent editorial. "The country is tired of large-scale foreign occupations and, in any case, Pentagon planners do not expect they will be necessary in the foreseeable future. Even with a smaller Army, America's defenses will remain the world's most formidable, especially given Mr. Hagel's proposed increase in investment in special operations, cyberwarfare and rebalancing the American presence in Asia."
As we said, most reasonable people can agree on the need to cut military spending, but some aspects of Hagel's proposal -- such as a new round of domestic military base closings in 2017 -- will likely meet resistance in Congress. In the years following the last round, in 2005, members of Congress fought to protect bases in their home districts and states, arguing that the process does not yield as much savings as advertised, AP notes.
Furthermore, closing these bases could have a devastating economic ripple effect in the communities where they are located. Just consider the dire predictions for Windham County with the impending closure of Vermont Yankee and it's not hard to empathize.
We would suggest instead that the Pentagon first look at closing foreign bases to save money. The Cold War has been over for decades now, so why do we need bases in Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom?
Former presidential candidate Ron Paul raised the issue during a debate in Tampa, Fla., in September 2011. "We're under great threat, because we occupy so many countries," he said at the time. "We're in 130 countries. We have 900 bases around the world. We're going broke."
By focusing first on foreign bases the Pentagon can take a little more time to carefully consider which domestic bases to close and perhaps give those communities a chance to prepare for those closures.
The final aspect of Hagel's plan that is already drawing fire, not just in Congress but also from veterans' groups, is the proposed changes in military compensation. These include smaller pay raises, a slowdown in the growth of tax-free housing allowances, cuts to subsidies for military commissaries, and a requirement that retirees and some families of active-duty service members pay a little more in health insurance deductibles and co-pays.
"Although these recommendations do not cut anyone's pay, I realize they will be controversial," Hagel said, adding that the nation cannot afford the escalating cost of military pay and benefit packages that were enacted during the war years.
We would counter that all of these cutbacks would raise the cost of living for military personnel, which is basically the same as cutting their pay. According to the Military Officers Association of America, an Army sergeant with a family of four would see an annual loss of $1,400 as a result of the reduction in housing subsidies and a proposed 1 percent cap on pay raises. CNN Money reported that military families could see a $3,000 annual grocery bill hike if commissary subsidies are cut.
As Hagel noted, these benefit packages were enacted during the war years, most likely to entice more recruits to join the military. After more than a decade of war in which these soldiers put their lives at risk for our country, it would be criminal to now renege on those earlier promises of benefits and pay raises.
"What we're trying to do is solve our financial problems on the backs of our military, and that can't be done," U.S. Rep. Howard McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee told AP.
If benefits and pay raises must be reduced it should be with new recruits, not those who signed up with the expectation of previously agreed upon compensation. These soldiers did their duty for our country, and now the country must do its duty by honoring the contract it made with them.