How are the U.S. military and intelligence communities being rewarded for their spectacular success in getting Osama bin Laden? There has been lots of praise for the enormous effort undertaken by intelligence analysts to find and fix bin Laden’s location. The boys from SEAL Team Six got to meet the President. However, some in Washington are using this event not simply to argue for a shift in our Afghanistan strategy away from counterinsurgency and towards counterterrorism operations but also for massive cuts in defense spending. President Obama has proposed more than $400 billion in new defense cuts which will strike a military returning home from two wars while still waging a global counterterrorism campaign.
What advocates of reduced defense spending apparently do not recognize is that the ability to get bin Laden was the product of precisely the defense spending increases that they now wish to curtail. The funds spent over the past decade went to the creation of a military skilled in both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. Billions have been invested in advanced intelligence collection capabilities including Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial systems, upgrading of the sensors for the venerable U-2, creating a new class of manned tactical recon aircraft and deploying new surveillance and communications satellites. Billions more have been spent on creating and supporting the so-called “kill chain” of analysts, targeting experts, mission planners and special operators that have essentially defeated al Qaeda and decimated the Taliban.
It must be noted that at the same time the bin Laden operation was underway, NATO units supported by U.S. forces were continuing to seek out and destroy Libyan military targets as part of the campaign to protect innocent civilians in that country. The platforms and systems employed for this conflict — the cruise missile-firing SSGN, B-2 bomber, F-15 Strike Eagle, F-16CJ, EA-18G Growler and large amphibious warfare ships with V-22s and Harrier jump jets — were designed for high-end conventional warfare. It is fortunate that the sense of moral imperative which led to our decision to intervene in Libya could be sustained by a military of sufficient size and capacity to conduct yet a third conflict. For that we must thank Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush under whose aegis the military we are currently using so widely was both bought and sustained.
The President’s outgoing Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, warned that cuts of the magnitude proposed by the President, much less the totally excessive proposals made by some on the Right and the Left, would be nothing short of catastrophic. The global war on terror will continue. So too will the need to deter and, if necessary conduct large-scale, high intensity conventional conflicts. A credible and effective strategic nuclear force must be maintained so long as nuclear weapons exist — read forever. So where would the budget cutters go to safely find hundreds of billions of dollars of savings? Oh yeah, I know. How about cutting health care and veterans benefits? Not likely.
There is no case for cutting defense spending, not in the world in which we live. Since the end of the Cold War the United States has fought a wide range of conflicts and employed its military to support an almost endless array of humanitarian crises. The nation likes and uses a large and well-equipped military. We also want to take good care of the men and women in uniform. That does not leave a lot of room for budget cutting.
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