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.
Britain is already much farther down that road. In 1965, Britons spent a little less than 7 percent of GDP on defense and nearly 11 percent on entitlements, according to figures compiled by the Heritage Foundation. Today, they spend about 3 percent on defense and more than 23 percent on entitlements. British leaders are contemplating even more defense cuts in the future; by then, they might not be able to afford even a few cruise missiles.
It's not clear that Ryan's proposed budget is precisely the right way to solve the entitlement problem. The same is true for Barack Obama's deficit commission (whose advice the president ignored). But so far, Ryan and his conservative colleagues, plus the deficit commission, are pretty much the only players in the game. Democrats who attack Republicans for advocating entitlement reform without having any solutions of their own have nothing to add.
None of this is to say that a strong defense must come at the expense of social spending. "It's a false choice between being a compassionate nation and being a military superpower," says Heritage Foundation research fellow Mackenzie Eaglen, who tracks defense issues. "If done responsibly, a nation can do both."
It's also not to say that military spending should never be cut. There remains a lot of waste and redundancy at the Pentagon. At his news conference, Ryan endorsed the cuts -- nearly $80 billion -- that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has proposed.
Defense spending grew a lot in the past decade (though still not as fast as entitlements), but that was mostly because of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's different from the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s, which was an investment in new systems for the future. In the next few years, facing an entitlement-fueled runaway deficit, there will be many calls for the United States to cut back on military spending. A look at once-mighty Britain shows where that could lead.