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Blank Check for the Military Will Send America the Way of the Soviet Union

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When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many strategists suggested that the Cold War arms race had bankrupted its economy and caused its downfall. More than 20 years later, it appears that some in Washington are driving the U.S. toward a similar fate.

Most recently, House Republicans (led by Rep. Paul Ryan) introduced a budget that both lavishly funds the Pentagon and slashes domestic programs. Mr. Ryan has even questioned whether generals were being honest in their assessment of the president's budget, suggesting, "We don't think the generals are giving us their true advice." House Republicans seem to be ignoring the advice of our military leaders and are seeking to fund the Pentagon beyond what it requires or has requested.

For example, the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) is now slated to cost the American taxpayer $1.5 trillion, with about a trillion attributable to its expensive maintenance costs. This is a perfect example of wasteful programs: the F-35 is becoming too expensive to bother flying in the first place. Instead of delaying contracts, it's time for elected officials to pull the plug.

Meanwhile, the foundations of a strong economy -- public education, infrastructure development, commitments to research and development and a secure safety net that protects our most vulnerable citizens from poverty -- go starved for funding. This is the trade-off of the Ryan Republican budget proposal.

Military leaders agree that we must address our economic security as the foundation of our national security. Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted that "the most significant threat to our national security is our debt." With that in mind, this is a time for tough decisions on both sides of the aisle, not a time to toe the party line and protect unwanted programs.

Meanwhile, the United States is in an arms race with itself. No other country can compete with the size of our military budgets, the lethality of our weapons or the global reach of our armed services.

We dominate a vacuum of power. The Air Force's only rival in the air is the U.S. Navy, owner of the world's second-largest air force. On the seas, the Navy is unrivaled but continues to add ships to the fleet. In this vacuum, members of Congress challenge each service to outspend each other, far beyond what is feasible for true national security. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta noted, "you've also got to take into consideration the national security threat that comes from the huge deficits and the huge debt that we're running." We cannot afford to avoid tough decisions when it comes to our budget. We certainly can't afford to give each branch of the military a blank check for weapons systems we don't need.

Meanwhile, we maintain a vast and redundant nuclear arsenal that brings very little national security benefit and is more relevant to the Cold War than any 21st century threats. Instead of escalating our own nuclear arsenal, we should be dedicated to preventing rogue states and terrorist organizations from acquiring nuclear materials.

Lobbyists and private contractors profit from this arms race. Hugely expensive projects like nuclear submarines and a new generation of bomber contribute more to defending the bottom line of major contractors than they do to defending America. Our government now employs more defense contractors than members of the military, at a greater cost to the American citizen. It is time to move away from a self-perpetuating procurement process that counts national security in dollars -- not sense.

Runaway Pentagon spending exacts a very high price on our economy. It is no exaggeration to say that excessive military spending is starving state and city budgets, costing us millions of jobs and perpetuating the recession for many Americans. Dollar for dollar, money invested in weapons produces fewer jobs than money invested in education, green jobs, or a myriad of other industries, according to a study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

If our leaders in Washington want to strengthen our security, they should enact smart cuts in the U.S. military budget and reallocate those funds to the most fundamental source of our strength: our economy.

This is a dangerous time for elected officials to play politics with the budget. Luckily, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin are both in positions to lead the charge against short-sighted budgets. Senator Mikulski is a member of the Defense Appropriations Committee and Senator Cardin is a member of the Budget Committee. They have opportunities to be vocal advocates of Pentagon budget reform and demand more common sense when it comes to reinforcing our economy.

This is a time to make serious decisions and strengthen our economic foundation, but the Ryan budget misses that mark by a wide margin. It is an unserious effort when serious ones are required.

Jeff Blum, a Baltimore native, is executive director of USAction, a federation of 22 state affiliates (including Progressive Maryland) that organizes for progressive change.

This post originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun on April 9, 2012.

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