America’s military is just about the best trained, best equipped fighting force the world has ever seen. Everybody in Washington seems to think that’s a good thing. Maybe it isn’t. Secretary Gates cited an estimate this summer that the U.S. generates nearly half of all global military outlays. That’s an awfully big burden for five percent of the world’s population to sustain — especially when our share of global output plummeted from 32% in 2001 to 23% in 2008. Is it possible that our approach to military preparedness is making victory unaffordable?
Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung provided a simple illustration of how that might be the case in a story in the October 26 Washington Post. They noted that the Pentagon is budgeting $65 billion this year to sustain 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. Do the math: $65 billion divided by 68,000 yields the answer that each soldier we send is costing nearly a million dollars per year to sustain. Which suggests that we probably won’t be able to sustain them as long as victory requires. The public will run out of patience, and want to use all that money for something else.
There was a time when spending five or ten percent of gross domestic product on national defense was an easy case to make, because the threat was really, really serious. Like during the Cold War, when Russia had 10,000 nuclear warheads aimed at America. But the really big threats have receded, while the federal government’s finances have deteriorated to a point where it must borrow over $3 billion per day just to stay afloat. So we probably can’t afford to spend a million dollars per soldier to fight a collection of rag-tag insurgents in one of the world’s most backward, remote countries. It’s time to consider the possibility that the way we do warfare is pricing us out of the winner’s circle.
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