One of the silliest statements coming out of the various deficit reduction discussions is that “everything is on the table.” This is usually taken to mean political sacred cows such as Social Security, Medicare, defense and tax increases. But there are other items, not easily quantifiable, that are vital to this nation’s well-being that cannot be on the table.
One of these is deterrence of war. We have the ongoing experience of the fiscal and human costs of two relatively small conflicts. The prospects of a larger war in the Middle East or East Asia are all but unthinkable. Yet, those regions are home to rogue states that have shown a propensity to use military means to achieve political ends, sponsor terrorism, seek to acquire nuclear weapons and maintain large military establishments. In addition, Russia maintains a large nuclear arsenal, including thousands of tactical nuclear weapons pointed at Europe and Asia, and China is building up its arsenal of strategic ballistic missiles and dual-capable theater missiles.
Deterring future wars requires, first of all, a secure and credible U.S. nuclear arsenal. This arsenal must be of sufficient size and varied deployment modes so as to ensure that whatever the circumstances, adversaries will know that the U.S. can respond to a nuclear attack on the homeland, U.S. allies and forward deployed forces with an appropriate but also devastating response. In practice this means maintaining the ICBM force, designing a new generation of missile carrying submarines and building a new long-range bomber. It also means deploying the next generation of early warning satellites.
It also requires sufficient conventional military capability that is either forward deployed in regions of interest or capable of being moved there in time to counter any aggression. These aggressors most likely would seek to use surprise and speed to achieve victory in a local war before the U.S. can intervene. Deterring this threat means maintaining forward deployed capabilities, particularly naval forces such as aircraft carriers and cruise missile-armed submarines, theater missile defenses and tactical air units. It also means having rapidly deployable capabilities that can reinforce forward deployed forces. Long-range strike systems, air and sea lift and aerial refueling are all critical to deterring conventional conflict. So too is advanced air and space-based reconnaissance, electronic warfare capabilities, anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures.
Another item that cannot be on the table is the safety and stability of the global commons. The global economic order is held together by the ability to freely transit the domains of seas, airspace, outer space and cyber space. Disruption of any one of these domains could wreak untold damage. As the world’s largest economy, the U.S. must be particularly sensitive to threats to the global commons.
Securing the global commons requires the maintenance of a wide range of military capabilities. These include not only traditional naval and air forces but sea, air and space surveillance capabilities. One area in which the U.S. military must grow its capabilities is for both offensive and defensive cyber warfare.
A third item that cannot be on the table in any deficit negotiations is the defense industrial base. This defense industrial base has produced the successive generation of weapons systems and other capabilities that have ensured the security and freedom of the West. Investments in cutting-edge research and development have resulted in the invention of many of the technologies on which not just our military superiority but our economic advantage are based. These include computers, the Internet, communications satellites, nuclear power, medical and industrial lasers and jet engines.
Losing the ability to design and develop the next generation of advanced military technologies would have a catastrophic effect on the nation’s security and potentially the U.S. economy. Once design and engineering teams are disbanded their critical knowledge base can be lost. Equally significant is the loss of the skilled workforce and even tooling that occurs when production lines are shuttered. Without a continuing flow of new programs, the defense industrial base could collapse, taking with it our future security.
A final item that cannot be on the table is the capability to conduct counter-terrorism operations around the world. The loss last week of 30 SEALs and other members of the U.S. military reminds us of just how precious a resource this is. Defeating terrorism requires the maintenance of a wide range of human skills and specialized technologies.
To say that everything is on the table is a bromide. The members of the super committee know this. Our ability to deter war, protect the global commons, design and build future military capabilities and fight terrorism cannot be on the table. Any deficit reduction scheme that puts one or more of these on the table is dead on arrival.
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