For about a decade, American military commanders leading the fight against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein had a blank check from Congress to buy whatever weapons and other supplies they needed. Now, the Pentagon is being forced to live with less in a new era of fiscal austerity.
With the Iraq war over and troops coming home from Afghanistan, the military budget must be reduced. The question is whether we can be smart about it. The across-the-board approach dictated by the budget reductions known as the sequester — rapid, steep, indiscriminate cuts to both bloated programs and essential ones — is the wrong way to go, causing chaos and turmoil in defense planning. Commanders say the sequester has already affected military readiness.
A report issued in September by the Henry L. Stimson Center, endorsed by a half-dozen former military commanders and others, recommended management reforms, including changes in military retirement and health benefits, that could save $22.4 billion; changes to the force structure, including a reduction in active-duty forces and nuclear forces, that could save $21.4 billion; and $5.7 billion saved by slowing the purchases of F-35 jets and ballistic missile submarines and freezing other programs like United States-based missile defenses.
Obviously, a well-defined mission would also help channel military spending to the right places. The administration is still reviewing its military priorities, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that future investment should focus on Special Operations forces, unmanned surveillance aircraft and cyberweaponry to protect against adversaries.
It has been clear for some time that America can no longer afford unrestrained military spending. There is no alternative to making tough decisions about what is essential for the country’s defense and doing a more ruthless and creative job of controlling costs.
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