The U.S. is currently engaged in three active wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya)—four if you count the war on terror, five if you count the war on piracy. We are increasingly hard-pressed to stave off the aggressive military designs of a resurgent China. We have to deter a nuclear North Korea and prevent Iran from going nuclear. We have to prepare for the possibility of an implosion in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed, highly unstable state. We have to maintain free movement across the global commons, meaning air and sea-lanes along with outer space and cyberspace. And at the same time we have to perform myriad humanitarian missions, such as the one currently being conducted by U.S. Pacific Command to assist Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.

Is this any time to cut defense spending? Apparently President Obama thinks so.

He just announced that he would like to see $400 billion in cuts over the next 12 years. Yet at the same time he didn’t specify which missions he would like the U.S. military to drop. Nor did he offer any assurance that fresh missions won’t be thrown its way. How could he? Just last month he ordered the U.S. armed forces into harm’s way in Libya—a conflict that no one could have foreseen at the start of the year. So the implication is that the U.S. armed forces will have to do everything they’re currently doing—but with significantly fewer resources. That’s a recipe for trouble—a prescription for American decline.

Already Defense Secretary Bob Gates has overseen a tough round of defense cutbacks which has resulted in an estimated $400 billion of cost savings. As Mackenzie Eglen of the Heritage Foundation notes, those cuts have resulted in the termination of numerous weapons systems, such as the F-22 fighter, the C-17 cargo plane, and the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. Other systems have been delayed or downsized. I have not been unduly alarmed by these cutbacks; I don’t think our defense will be imperiled by the loss of the F-22, C-17, or EFV per se. But there is only so much fat you can cut before you start to hit muscle.

The U.S. military is already operating at full capacity. It is already too small for all the missions thrown its way. It is already overstressed and over-deployed. It is already facing a major procurement shortfall because we took a holiday from history in the 1990s. Thus we continue to rely on systems (such as the M-1 tank, F-15 fighter, and Los Angeles-class submarine) that date back to the 1970s. No equipment, no matter how well maintained, can last indefinitely. There is an urgent need to recapitalize the force—and also to expand the number of soldiers and marines, rather than to downsize the force, as currently planned.

Gates is right to warn that “further significant defense cuts cannot be accomplished without reducing force structure and military capability.” The question is whether President Obama and Congressional leaders are listening. The indication so far is that they’re not. The result is likely to be that the country—indeed the world—will pay a high price when the U.S. military is not ready to confront some crisis in the future.

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