How to Save a Trillion Dollars

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Jacob D. Moore/U.S. Navy

Sailors scrub the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington

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Except when states fight over the carriers' anchorage. Right now, for example, there's a nasty tug-of-war under way between Virginia and Florida over the Navy's plan to shift one of Norfolk's five carriers to Mayport, Fla. The Pentagon says the move is vital so that a natural disaster or attack — of some unspecified kind — does not deliver a knockout blow to the Atlantic Fleet.

Florida lawmakers insist that putting all the East Coast carriers in one basket, Norfolk, is dumb. "The decision has been made," says Democratic Senator Bill Nelson. "And it's been made for the purposes of securing the national defense."

Virginia's delegation contends that a tightening defense budget can't cover the $500 million cost of building the new facilities needed to base a carrier in Florida. "Instead of spending more ... for new repair facilities in Mayport, we owe it to our shipyard workers, the fleet and the American taxpayer to maintain our existing shipyards properly," argues Democratic Senator Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary.

Neither side mentions the real prize: the 6,000 jobs and $400 million in annual local spending a carrier generates. Nor does either state note that the U.S. Navy has not had a real shooting war with another ship since World War II. And what is missing from this entire pork-pulling contest is whether we need that 11th carrier at all. "I do believe that strategic dispersion is a good thing," Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, tells TIME. "My job is not to play the politics."

Of course, by spreading its carriers around, the Navy makes them harder to kill — but not because it's reducing their exposure to hurricanes or terrorists. Dispersion makes carriers harder to kill because more states become invested in their future. "It's a disease that infects the entire defense budget," says Gordon Adams, who oversaw Pentagon spending during the Clinton Administration. "We spend about a third of the defense budget not for national-security reasons but because it's in someone's district or state."

What's the Mission?
There was a bracing honesty in calling the nation's military the Department of War until 1947. War was what the military did, and when it was over, in theory, the U.S. military could shrink to a garrison force. But following World War II, the Department of War became the Department of Defense, with a never ending mission and an ever expanding portfolio. "The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989, and there is no end in sight," observed University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer in the National Interest in January. "Countries that continuously fight wars invariably build powerful national-security bureaucracies that undermine civil liberties and make it difficult to hold leaders accountable for their behavior." Last year the Pentagon's assessment of its must-do list expanded its roles in homeland defense, defeating insurgencies and terrorists, building allies' security forces, defeating those who would deny the U.S. military access to wherever it wants to go, stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons and waging cyberwar. Even Gates, the budget cutter, has said, "The United States needs a broad portfolio of military capabilities with maximum versatility across the widest possible spectrum of conflict."

But the U.S. military is stretched too thinly around the globe to perform well in its many missions. In the past few years, a realist school of foreign policy thinkers has suggested it is time to rationalize our missions and curb our presence overseas. They call it offshore balancing. Instead of having the U.S. military provide the combat edge in places like Europe, Asia and the Persian Gulf, simply let its presence in those regions shrink and consign their fates to regional powers. This would mean a withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Europe and Asia and an end to the Marines' 66-year presence on Okinawa. South Korea can handle its northern neighbor absent U.S. troops, with offshore aid — intelligence and nuclear weapons among them — coming from its longtime ally. The U.S. will never invade Iran. The U.S. military role there, should it come to war, would consist of air strikes and special-operations missions, not an invasion of American troops.

The drain of waging war the old-fashioned way in Afghanistan and Iraq has forced the U.S. to swap boots on the ground for air and naval power in Libya, says Lawrence Korb, a Reagan-era Pentagon official. "We're doing the same thing in Pakistan and Yemen," he adds, "using special forces and drones." Such standoff methods could be applied to Afghanistan and Iraq once U.S. forces depart. But there are downsides to such a scheme. The Persian Gulf would fall more heavily under the sway of states like Iran and Russia, and Japan might feel the need to rearm if the U.S. folded its East Asian umbrella and went home. But leadership is all about making choices, and it's past time for Washington to recalibrate its rusty risk meter. Only by trimming missions can forces be cut, because that's where the real money is: payroll and procurement. Something will soon have to give. "The Pentagon budget reflects our commitments, but the problem is that a lot of our commitments are not essential to U.S. national security," says Christopher Preble, Cato's foreign policy chief. "We could reduce those commitments and leave the U.S. with a measure of safety and security that our ancestors would envy."

The size and shape of the U.S. military don't belong to the President, the Pentagon, contractors or Congress. Dwight Eisenhower, the last general to serve in the White House, knew something about balancing national security with prosperity. Most Americans recall Ike's warning "against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." But few recall what the World War II hero —the only five-star general ever to sit in the Oval Office — said next: "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together."

For too long, an uninterested and distracted citizenry has been content to leave the messy business of national defense to those with bottom-line reasons for force-feeding it like a foie gras goose. It's long past time, Ike might have added today, for U.S. taxpayers to demand that its government spend what is needed to defend the country — not a penny more.

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