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Preparing for the Last War

Generals and admirals, they say, always prepare for the last war. Why? One reason is that civilians urge them to do so.  For example, this morning, the New York Times, in a long editorial entitled “How to Pay for a 21st-Century Military,” urged the Obama administration to gut high-tech, big-ticket programs, like the F-22 fighter, the Zumwalt class destroyer, and the Virginia class submarine.  They are, the paper assures us, “costly and unneeded weapons.”  Moreover, the Pentagon should scale back the Navy by a carrier group and the Air Force by two air wings.

The premise is that the United States is not going to be fighting major conflicts in the foreseeable future.  Unfortunately, that’s an assumption we should not make.  After all, history teaches us to be wary: both World War II and Korea started for us with surprise attacks.

The Times also assumes that no big power is going to take us on.  Is that so?  China, with a rapidly modernizing military, wants Taiwan and islands belonging to others in its surrounding seas.  Moreover, it is configuring its military to fight us.  Moreover, a desperate North Korea continues to covet South Korea.  And is it really inconceivable that an aggressive Russia will try to grab more neighboring land?

As the Times points out, we need to win the two wars we are fighting.  But we also need to be able to fight and prevail in the conflicts that are already foreseeable.  Building Cold War-era weapons systems-that’s the way the Times generally characterizes them-are expensive, but they are not nearly as costly as fighting the next major war.  We may have to do that if our adversaries think, due to the degradation of our capabilities, they might prevail.  This is blindingly obvious-except to the New York Times and all the others who think major war is a thing of the past.



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