U.S. military power: When is enough enough?

By Bernd Debusmann
February 5, 2010

– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

The numbers tell the story of a superpower addicted to overwhelming military might: the United States accounts for five percent of the world’s population, around 23 percent of its economic output and more than 40 percent of its military spending. America spends as much on its soldiers and weapons as the next 18 countries put together.

Why such a huge margin? The question is rarely asked although there is spirited debate over specific big-ticket weapons systems whose conception dates back to the days when the United States was not the only superpower and large-scale conventional war against the other superpower, the Soviet Union, was an ever-present possibility. Those days are over.

Now, the U.S., deep in deficit and grappling with the aftermath of the worst recession since the 1930s, is reaching a point where the only way the country can maintain its role as the world’s towering military giant is to borrow money from the country many military planners see as a potential future adversary – China. “Obviously, this is not a tenable arrangement over the long run,” says Loren Thompson, CEO of the Lexington Institute, a think tank with close ties to defense contractors.

The Pentagon, he says, must wean itself from the idea that the American military can go anywhere and do anything equally well.

Whether that weaning process will ever happen is open to doubt. “America’s interests and role in the world require Armed Forces with unmatched capabilities,” according to the just-published Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a report required by Congress on the future of U.S. national security strategy.

“Unmatched” is one thing, dwarfing the rest of the world is another. The U.S., for example, has 11 aircraft carriers in service; the rest of the world has eight. China is building one but analysts say it won’t be completed before 2015. “The United States,” notes the QDR, “remains the only nation to project and sustain large-scale operations over extended distances.”

That it can do so is largely thanks to weapons systems developed during and for the Cold War, from aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines to long-range bombers. During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama frequently pledged to reform the defence budget “so that we are not paying for Cold War era weapons systems that we don’t use.” He repeated that pledge in his first State of the Union message.

But his defence budget, released in the same week as the QDR, shows no distinct departure from the spending habits perpetuated in the budgets of his predecessor, George W. Bush. It allotted more funds for special forces, helicopters, missile-launching drones and other equipment for the “asymmetric wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq but it also provided for a new aircraft carrier and attack submarines.

If they are not Cold War era weapons meant for conventional conflict, what is?

IMBALANCE BETWEEN HARD AND SOFT POWER

In the eyes of Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Analysis, a liberal Washington think tank, Obama’s budget provides for add-ons rather than hard choices and actually widens the huge imbalance between military spending and spending on non-military foreign engagement.

Also known as soft power, the term embraces concepts from diplomacy to foreign aid and some of the most eloquent warnings about the perils of the imbalance have come from the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, the only Bush cabinet member kept on by Obama.

In 2007, Gates startled the military establishment by calling for increased funding for the State Department and pointing out that the entire American diplomatic corps numbered fewer people than the staffing of an aircraft carrier group. Diplomatic posts have been added since then but according to the Institute for Policy Analysis, the military to non-military imbalance has grown from 11:1 to 12:1.

“U.S. militarism has long been a core part of the American Way,” writes Steven Hill in a just-published book, Europe’s Promise, that compares the United States and Europe. Militarism does “triple duty as a formidable foreign policy tool, a powerful stimulus to the economy, and a usurper of tax dollars that could be spent on other budget priorities.”

Health care, say, or education, or the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. As it is, according to a study by a peace lobby, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, military spending and the cost of past wars have been swallowing up more than 40 percent of federal tax dollars, health care 20 percent, science, energy and environment 2.5 percent and education just over 2.

There is little grumbling over such lop-sided allocations largely because most Americans equate military spending with security. But having the world’s strongest Armed Forces, by far, did not guard America against the September 11, 2001, attacks, nor does it guarantee victory against enemies using such primitive weapons as roadside bombs and suicide vests.

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