On a damp, gray morning in late February, Navy admirals, U.S. Congress members and top officials of the nation's biggest shipyard gathered in Norfolk, Va., to watch a computerized torch carve bevels into a slab of steel as thick as your fist.
The occasion: the ceremonial cutting of the first piece of a $15 billion aircraft carrier slated to weigh anchor in 2020. That ship still unnamed will follow the just-as-costly Gerald R. Ford, now 20% built and due to set sail in 2015.
Meanwhile, 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.
"It's just tradition, the industrial base and some other old and musty arguments" that keep the shipyards building them, says Thomas Barnett, a former Pentagon deep thinker and now chief strategist at Wikistrat, a geopolitical-analysis firm. "We should scale back our carrier design to something much cheaper and simpler. Think of mother ships launching waves of cheap drones that would actually be more frightening and intimidating." Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned last year of "the growing antiship capabilities of adversaries" before asking what in Navy circles had long been the unaskable question. "Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?"
Across Washington, all sorts of people are starting to ask the unthinkable questions about long-sacred military budgets. 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?
It may seem strange to talk about defense cuts while the U.S. is waging one war in Afghanistan, is mopping up a second in Iraq and has just launched a half war in Libya. But those conflicts 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." Which points to an almost tragic irony of Washington's $700 billion annual appetite for military stores: 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. They just have to call in their loans.
Numbers alone tell much of the story: we are now spending 50% 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.
And yet we feel less secure. We've waged war nonstop for nearly a decade in Afghanistan at a cost of nearly a half-trillion dollars against a foe with no army, no navy and no air force. Back home, we are more hunkered down and buttoned up than ever as political figures (and eager defense contractors) have sounded a theme of constant vigilance against terrorists who have successfully struck only once. Partly as a consequence, we are an increasingly muscle-bound nation: we send $1 billion destroyers, with crews of 300 each, to handle five Somali pirates in a fiberglass skiff.
While the U.S.'s military spending has jumped from $1,500 per capita in 1998 to $2,700 in 2008, its NATO allies have been spending $500 per person over the same span. As long as the U.S. is overspending on its defense, it lets its allies skimp on theirs and instead pour the savings into infrastructure, education and health care. So even as U.S. taxpayers fret about their health care costs, their tax dollars are paying for a military that is subsidizing the health care of their European allies.
In January, Gates proposed cutting $78 billion from Pentagon accounts over five years. President Obama trumped that April 13, calling for $400 billion in cuts by 2023. He offered no specifics beyond saying he and Gates would lead a "fundamental review of America's missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world." Even some Republicans have begun to acknowledge that the Pentagon needs to do its part in the war on debt. "I served in two administrations that practiced and validated the policy of peace through strength," said Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels in February. "But if our nation goes over a financial Niagara, we won't have much strength, and eventually, we won't have peace."
Congress can't make the numbers work by focusing on waste, fraud and abuse, though lawmakers rarely admit this. 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. And both of those require a new kind of political will to stop treating military spending as pork, a regional and local entitlement that can go on forever. Finally, revising America's defense budget will happen only if the U.S. takes a hard-eyed look at the dozens of military missions that are no longer vital or affordable.