Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's budget proposal calling for scaling back the Army to pre-World War II personnel levels, closing military bases and making other cuts in spending for the military is a radical departure for the Pentagon after years of burgeoning budgets in the aftermath of the events of 9/11.
But Hagel's $496 billion budget makes sense. The days of unchecked and unchallenged military spending have to end if this nation is serious about dealing with the deficit. And, with the dual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq finally coming to a close after more than a decade of draining American resources, now is the time for a new approach to defense spending.
Hagel is the first to acknowledge that the world remains a volatile place. Unforeseen events could rachet up military spending overnight, as they did in 2001, but barring such an occurrence, America must develop a new strategy focusing on a leaner military.
The proposed Pentagon budget is $75 billion less than the previous one. It would shrink the active-duty Army from 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000, the smallest it has been since 1940. It would set in motion another round of military base closings in 2017, the first year of the post-Obama presidency. It would pull the plug on the Air Force's A-10 Warthog aircraft, which dates to the 1970s, and the U-2 spy planes that have been a part of the American arsenal since the Cold War, but have largely been eclipsed by unmanned drones.
Hagel's Pentagon budget calls for adequate spending for national security and the capability to wage one overseas war. While this might not be a "safe" assumption given what occurred in the aftermath of 9/11, it remains a logical blueprint for defense.
Military spending is a popular political pork barrel, and the hue and cry from politicians whose constituencies include large military installations will be predictable. So will the voices of the Obama administration's critics, who will raise the specter of a weakened American defense establishment.
The United States isn't about to disarm itself. Our military cupboard will remain far from bare. The fact is the Cold War has been over for a quarter-century and the two wars we have been fighting for more than a decade are finally coming to a close. Cutting back on defense spending in an effort to get our budget priorities back in line isn't about weakening us. It's a realization that we are entering a postwar era and adjusting our millitary needs accordingly.