Between the Lines: We can gain strength by cutting defense budget

The past few days have been comfortable.

The last weekend in May has a certain predictability about it. Especially if you choose to stay away from your computer and television and decide family is more important during the three-day Memorial Day holiday.

I spent Sunday out of town dining on barbecued pork and other fine cookout food at my wife�s family�s semi-annual big Memorial Day weekend reunion/whoop-to-do.

I returned to Vermillion Sunday night so that I could cover the Memorial Day service here Monday morning and Rep. Kristi Noem�s speech to Girl Staters that evening on the USD campus.

Again, nothing out of the ordinary. I did flip on the TV long enough to see a few minutes of the movie �Midway,� which is standard fare on Memorial Day weekend.

Then it was off to Girls State, where the atmosphere changed a bit. Holidays are an easy escape from reality. Events like Girls State can you make plunge right back into the real world, with it many problems.

Rep. Kristi Noem addressed the delegates Monday, and fielded questions from the audience. One young woman asked her about the most challenging part of her work, and Noem said currently it�s working to deal with our nation�s $14 trillion deficit.

Tuesday night, Sen. John Thune was the Girls Staters� special guest, and he, too, talked about the economic calamity that could hit the United States if something isn�t done to keep the deficit from spiraling out of control.

It�s not exactly the cheeriest thing for young people, and adults for that matter, to hear.

There is however, a way to at least dry up a bit of our nation�s growing pool of red ink. And no, it doesn�t involve the Ryan plan, or tax increases. (Thune and Noem, by the way, were good at mentioning that something needs to be done about the budget, but didn�t offer too many specifics).

Here�s an idea we can all sink our teeth into. It�s something that Mark Thompson, writing for Time magazine, pointed out over a month ago. I was reminded of his article during the view minutes I viewed �Midway,� complete with stock footage of the U.S. Naval flee of aircraft carriers steaming across the Pacific.

We�re still building aircraft carriers, despite the fact that the wars we are currently engaged in are with countries that have no Navy and, in the case of Afghanistan, not what you could even call an Air Force.

Right now, workers are busy building a new $15 billion carrier slated to weigh anchor in 2020. That ship will follow the just-as-costly Gerald R. Ford, now 20 percent built and due to set sail in 2015.

Meanwhile, Thompson writes, on the other side of the world, China is putting the final touches on a new class of DF-21 missiles expressly designed to sink the Ford and its sister ship as well as their 5,000-person crews. China's missiles, which will likely cost about $10 million each, could keep the Navy's carriers so far away from Taiwan that the short-range aircraft they bear would be useless in any conflict over the tiny island's fate.

Aircraft carriers, born in the years before World War II, are increasingly obsolete platforms of war. They feature expensive manned aircraft in an age when budgets are being squeezed and less expensive drones are taking over.

While the U.S. and its allies flew hundreds of attack missions against targets in coastal Libya last month, cruise missiles delivered much of the punch, and U.S. carriers were notable only for their absence. Yet the Navy, backed by the Pentagon and Congress, continues to churn them out as if it were still 1942 � as if we still needed them to engage an enemy in a Midway-like encounter.

It is time for us to begin to ask ourselves some tough questions. Can the U.S. really afford more than 500 bases at home and around the world? Do the Air Force, Navy and Marines really need $400 billion in new jet fighters when their fleets of F-15s, F-16s and F-18s will give them vast air superiority for years to come?

Does the Navy need 50 attack submarines when America's main enemy hides in caves? Does the Army still need 80,000 troops in Europe 66 years after the defeat of Adolf Hitler?

Thompson notes that our current military conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya have made it easy to forget the warning of Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that "the single biggest threat to our national security is our debt."

Oh, the irony. Washington's $700 billion annual appetite for military stores means we are borrowing cash from China to pay for weapons that we would presumably use against it. If the Chinese want to slay us, they don't need to attack us with their missiles, Thompson writes. They just have to call in their loans.

While we at home argue and fuss about Medicare and Social Security, what flies under the radar is this startling threat to us all �we are now spending 50 percent more (even excluding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) than we did on 9/11. We are spending more on the military than we did during the Cold War, when U.S. and NATO troops stared across Germany's Fulda Gap at a real super-power foe with real tanks and thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at U.S. cities.

In fact, the U.S. spends about as much on its military as the rest of the world combined.

Congress can't make the reduce military spending simply by focusing on waste, fraud and abuse, though lawmakers rarely admit this, notes Thompson, who writes, �Both hawks and doves love declaring their determination to root out inefficiencies, but doing so won't solve the problem. Bigger changes are required, and they are long overdue. Among a half-dozen serious studies about how best to reduce defense spending by up to $1 trillion over the next decade, an emerging consensus is easy to spot: Weapons purchases must be trimmed, and personnel costs must be reduced.�

Sen. Thune told Girls State delegates Tuesday that $14 trillion is such a big number, his calculator can�t handle it. Well, $1 trillion is a big number, too. We have a chance to save that much, to, as Thune and Noem both aptly stated, save our current generation of young people from crushing debt.

Trimming $1 trillion in military spending may require a political will that Noem and Thune don�t possess. Who knows? Maybe we don�t, either. What are we willing to give up to reduce the deficit? Ellsworth Air Force Base? Is South Dakota ready for that big of an economic sacrifice?

It�s difficult to fathom, but if we truly want to get our federal budget under control, we must stop treating military spending as pork, or as a regional and local entitlement that can go on forever.

One trillion dollars is a lot of money. Before too much hand wringing commences over cutting that much from the Pentagon, let�s double check the numbers.

Trimming $1 trillion from the U.S. military budget would still leave the Pentagon fatter than it was before 9/11. We would still be a dominant global force.

Only stronger. Because our deficit would be $1 trillion smaller.

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