We shouldn’t gut defense. A central question of our budget debates is how much we allow growing social spending to crowd out the military and, in effect, force the United States into a dangerous, slow-motion disarmament.

People who see military cuts as an easy way to reduce budget deficits forget that this has already occurred. From the late 1980s to 2010, America’s armed forces dropped from 2.1 million men and women to about 1.4 million. The downsizing — the “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War — was not undone by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1990, the U.S. Army had 172 combat battalions, the U.S. Navy 546 ships and the U.S. Air Force 4,355 fighters; today, those numbers are 100 battalions, 288 ships and 1,990 fighters.

True, Iraq and Afghanistan raised defense budgets. As these wars conclude, lower spending will shrink overall deficits. But the savings will be smaller than many expect because the costs — though considerable — were smaller than they thought. From fiscal 2001 to 2011, these wars cost $1.3 trillion, says the Congressional Budget Office. That’s 4.4 percent of the $29.7 trillion of federal spending over those years. In 2011, the cost was about $159 billion, 12 percent of the deficit ($1.3 trillion) and 4 percent of total spending ($3.6 trillion).

Three bogus arguments are commonly made for big military cuts.

First, we can’t afford today’s military. Not so. How much we spend is a political decision. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the country was much poorer, 40 percent to 50 percent of the federal budget routinely went to defense, representing 8 percent to 10 percent of our national income. By 2010, a wealthier America devoted only 20 percent of federal spending and 4.8 percent of national income to the military. Social spending replaced military spending; but that shift has gone too far.

Second, we spend so much more than anyone else that cutbacks won’t make us vulnerable. In 2009, U.S. defense spending was six times China’s and 13 times Russia’s, according to estimates from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The trouble with these numbers is that they don’t truly adjust for differences in income levels. U.S. salary and procurement costs are orders of magnitude higher than China’s, for example. But China’s military manpower is about 50 percent greater than ours, and it has a fighter fleet four-fifths as large. This doesn’t mean that China’s military technology yet equals ours, but differences in reported spending are wildly misleading.

Third, the Pentagon has so much inefficiency and waste that sizable cuts won’t jeopardize our fighting capability. Of course, there’s waste and inefficiency. These are being targeted in the $450 billion of additional cuts over 10 years — beyond savings from Iraq and Afghanistan — that President Barack Obama and Congress agreed to this year. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had already cut major programs, including the F-22 stealth fighter, that he judged unneeded. Savings can be had from overhauling Tricare, the generous health insurance for service members and retirees. But like most bureaucratic organizations, the Pentagon will always have some waste. It’s a myth that it all can be surgically removed without weakening the military.

Defense spending is unlike other spending, because protecting the nation is government’s first job. It’s in the U.S. Constitution, as highways, school lunches and Social Security are not. We should spend as much as needed, but that amount is never clear. Even in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union’s capabilities were intensively analyzed, there was no scientific and exact number.

Now, our concept of national security — and demands on the military — is expansive and murky. Aside from preventing attacks on the homeland, goals include: stopping terrorism; countering China’s rise; combating cyber warfare; limiting nuclear proliferation (Iran, North Korea); averting the loss or theft of nuclear weapons (Pakistan?); safeguarding sea routes and some major oil producers; providing humanitarian assistance in major natural disasters.

By itself, defense spending doesn’t ensure that our national power will be wisely or effectively deployed. This depends on our civilian and military leaders. But squeezing defense will limit their choices and expose U.S. troops to greater risk. Those who advocate deep cuts need to specify which goals — combating cyber warfare, countering China, fighting terrorism — should be curtailed.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan postponed the modernization of weapons systems dating to the 1970s and 1980s. Obama repeatedly pledges to maintain America’s military strength, but the existing cuts may do otherwise. Even before these, defense spending was headed below 3 percent of national income, the lowest level since 1940. The need to maintain an adequate military is another reason why social spending needs to be cut and taxes need to be raised.

© 2011, The Washington Post Writers Group

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