Nearly lost amid reporting on the early days of the Libyan war was a revealing look at the deteriorating military strength of Britain, the United States' oldest and most important ally. The Daily Telegraph reported that the British navy fired a dozen cruise missiles in the initial attack on Libya. The problem: It was a significant portion of the Brits' entire arsenal of 64 cruise missiles.
"At this rate, we are using up 5 or 10 percent of our stock per day, and soon it could become unsustainable," a British defense-industry source told the Telegraph. "What if the strikes go beyond a second week? We will simply run out of ammunition."
It was, at the least, a disheartening comment on the state of what was once the most powerful naval force on the planet. European countries, saddled by enormous social-welfare commitments, are going broke right and left, and Britain is no exception. A once-formidable military force is gradually being dismantled to pay for health care and pensions.
In Washington, Rep. Paul Ryan didn't talk about Britain or cruise missiles when he unveiled his path-breaking budget proposal last week. But the new House Budget Committee chairman could not have been clearer: In coming years, the Big Three entitlement programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security -- will consume the United States' budget. By sometime around 2050, if increases in the costs of those programs continue unchecked, they will eat up every single tax dollar collected by the federal government.
Long before that, if trends continue, there will be little money left to defend the United States, whose military leaders might find themselves carefully hoarding a few remaining cruise missiles. Everything will go to pay for health care and pensions.
Back in the mid-1960s, when Medicare and Medicaid joined Social Security to make the Big Three, the United States spent about 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on entitlements. That figure grew steadily, and by the mid-1970s, entitlement spending surpassed defense spending for the first time. It has done so every year since.
Now, the United States spends about 10 percent of GDP on entitlements, versus about 5 percent on defense. Two decades from now, entitlement spending will hit 15 percent of GDP. And well before that, the amount we spend on interest on the debt will pass defense spending, too. As the debt increases, there will be continuing political pressure to cut non-entitlement spending, with defense, as always, the biggest target.