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President Bush proposed a record $439.3 defense budget for fiscal year 2007, almost $30 billion more than current defense spending and not including funding for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But other than funding to increase the size of Special Forces, expand language skills, and buy more unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) about $7 billion total and about 1.5 percent of the overall budget most of the rest of defense spending is unrelated to the one real threat to America: radical Islamic terrorism represented by al Qaeda.
Since the end of the Cold War the United States has been in a unique geostrategic position. We have friendly neighbors to the north and south, and vast moats to the east and west. Given that no other country in the world has significant global power projection capability, America is relatively safe from a military invasion. And the vast U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal is a powerful deterrent against any country with nuclear weapons even rogue states with long-range ballistic missiles.
The United States no longer faces a serious military challenger or global hegemonic threat. And the U.S. military is, by far and away, the most dominant military force on the planet. Russia comes closest to having the capability to be a military threat to us, but instead of being a menace, now has observer status with NATO and, despite having more main battle tanks than the U.S. Army, is no longer a threat to sweep through the Fulda Gap to seize Western Europe.
Certainly, Chinese military developments bear watching and although many see China as the next great threat, even if China modernizes and expands its strategic nuclear force, the United States will retain a credible nuclear deterrent with an overwhelming advantage in warheads, launchers, and variety of delivery vehicles. Moreover, China does not possess the sea- or air-lift to project its military power to threaten the U.S. homeland.
If Russia and China are not serious threats to the United States, so-called rogue states such as North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Cuba are even less of a problem. These countries are unfriendly to us, but none have any real military capability to threaten vital American security interests or the U.S. homeland.
The United States can afford to spend less on defense and still be secure. A smaller U.S. military would be highly capable relative to the other militaries of the world. Even if U.S. forces were downsized and pulled back from their current forward deployments, the United States could still project power if vital U.S. security interests were at risk. Although it is counterintuitive, forward deployment does not significantly enhance the U.S. military’s ability to fight wars. Both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom were conducted without significant forces already deployed in either theater of operations. Yet military operations against the Taliban regime commenced less than a month after the Sept. 11 2001, attacks and U.S. forces swept away the conventional Iraqi military in less than four weeks.
The real threat to the United States no longer consists of nation states, but the terrorist threat represented by al Qaeda, which is relatively undeterred by the U.S. military. Indeed, an expansive defense perimeter and some 250,000 forward deployed forces around the world did not stop 19 hijackers from attacking the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.. And U.S. forces abroad particularly those deployed in Muslim countries do more to exacerbate the terrorist threat than diminish it. For example, the presence of 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War was one of Osama bin Laden’s consistently stated reasons for engaging in terrorism against the United States, including the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ultimately, larger defense budgets are both unnecessary and unwise because they do not target the al Qaeda terrorist threat. Most current defense spending is for two purposes: first, to maintain a large U.S. military presence deployed to all four corners of the globe (even before Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom), and second, to procure weapon systems for conventional warfare, such as the F-22 air to air fighter, F/A-18E/F fighter-bomber, V-22 tilt-rotor transport aircraft, Virginia class attack submarines, and DD(X) destroyers that are not needed to counter the few military threats the United States might actually have to face.
In the end, having such a large and apparently overwhelming military results in the Madeleine Albright syndrome. It was she who told Republicans in the early 1990s, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Our overwhelmingly dominant forces constitute a temptation for policymakers to enter into highly dubious, if not unnecessary, military interventions. Those, in turn, are a primary motivation for the terrorist threats to the United States. We may be spending more on defense, but we are actually less secure.
CHARLES V. PEÑA is an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project, senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, analyst for MSNBC television, and author of the forthcoming (April 2006) Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books).