Earlier this week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced an initiative by the Obama administration to significantly reduce military spending over five years.
Described as "draconian," Hagel's proposal is surely just the beginning of an acrimonious debate over how big our military should be in a 2020 world, how much our military should depend on technology, and whether our government wants to adopt a more isolationist foreign policy.
The proposed cuts represent the abandonment of a very costly "two-war" doctrine implemented under the Bush administration. It called for the U.S. to be able to simultaneously fight two major wars.
"For the first time in 13 years, we will be presenting a budget to the Congress of the United States that's not a war-footing budget," Hagel said on Monday.
One aspect of the policy is bound to create significant controversy. That's the call for cutting benefits to military personnel, which includes reducing copays and increasing deductibles for health insurance, and cutting subsidies that military families receive for housing and low-cost goods.
The average annual cost of pay and benefits for each active-duty member of the military has risen from about $54,000 a decade ago to $110,000.
"No realistic effort to find further significant savings can avoid dealing with military compensation," said Hagel. "That includes pay and benefits for active and retired troops, both direct and in-kind."
The plan was immediately attacked by a number of Republicans as unsound. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, home of major military bases, stated:
Reducing the size of the Army to its lowest levels in 70 years does not accurately reflect the current security environment in which the administration's own officials have noted the threats facing our country are more diffused than ever... I am concerned that we are on a path to repeat the mistakes we've made during past attempts to cash in on expected peace dividends that never materialized -- mistakes that caused our allies to question America's staying power and encouraged our enemies to test us.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said: "This is really over the top. It does enormous long-term damage to our military."
Tea Party favorite Allen West (absurdly) used Hagel's announcement to attack the president's legitimacy as the leader of the armed forces:
Barack Hussein Obama cannot be seen as a Commander-in-Chief, and I will never refer to him that way. His fundamental transformation of America means weakening our nation and leaving our Republic less secure. I can just imagine how appreciative and elated his Muslim Brotherhood friends are at this point, to include Turkey's President Erdogan, as well as the mad mullahs in Iran.
In reality, Hagel's spending plan is nothing more than an initial proposal that establishes the extreme parameters of cuts in overdue negotiations to reduce the defense budget.
The fact is that the U.S. may need to reduce its military spending to some degree. In 2012, the U.S. spent $682 million on defense. That was higher than the $652 billion spent by the next 10 countries combined, which includes China and Russia.
But cutting waste rather than troops may be more of the answer. Part of the upcoming debate should focus on wasteful spending.
A major priority should be reforming the procurement and development processes. Tens of billions can be saved.
But as civil wars and military coups plague the Middle East, the Russians try to recapture their lost influence, and the Chinese continue their military buildup in the Pacific Rim, our nation needs to spend heavily on our defense.
Given such a continuing need for a strong defense, balanced against a corresponding necessity to reduce federal spending and the deficit, a healthy debate is indeed in order about defense spending.
Steven Kurlander blogs at Kurly's Kommentary (stevenkurlander.com) and writes for Context Florida and The Huffington Post and can be found on Twitter @Kurlykomments. He lives in Monticello, N.Y.
*Published in Context Florida on February 26, 2014