Actually, a President-elect Kerry probably would not have dared to suggest the far-reaching cuts Mr. Bush plans to make. In any event, he surely would have had a hard time getting them enacted, given pervasive concerns about his judgment on national security matters.
Yet, here we have the spectacle of $55 billion in far-reaching defense reductions being made by the man who beat Sen. Kerry ? largely on the basis of precisely those concerns. It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Bush will be sworn in again on January 20th because he was widely perceived to be a more credible and robust leader than his challenger when it came to protecting this country.
As Donald Rumsfeld has observed, to considerable tut-tutting from the chattering classes, ?You go to war with the army you have.? If President Bush does not reverse course, he will be condemning the U.S. military ? perhaps on his watch, perhaps on those of his successors ? to going to war with vastly inferior capabilities than they could have, should have and will need.
Worse yet, history teaches that such conditions not only leave us less prepared to fight and win. They tend to invite aggression that translates into conflicts that might otherwise have been avoided.
Ronald Reagan, who George W. Bush clearly admires and tries to emulate, offered an alternative approach. He called it ?peace through strength.? And the military build-up that flowed from Reagan?s philosophy and leadership continues to this day to provide the backbone of America?s capacity to project power around the world. The fruits of his investment in modern weapon systems and the troops trained to employ them proved indispensable to success in the Cold War. They have also served us well to this point in today?s global conflict against terrorists and their state-sponsors.
If President Bush makes the mistake ? political, as well as strategic ? of emulating defense-cutting Kerry Democrats, there will be adverse impacts especially for the services most critical to rapid power projection: the Navy-Marine Corps team and the Air Force. The swift and effective response of naval and amphibious units and Air Force airlift to far-flung Asian communities? disaster relief requirements following last month?s tsunami underscores the point. Unfortunately, these units stand to be reduced to the condition of the U.S. Army ? too small, inadequately armed and insufficiently flexible to meet various challenges ? for which the Administration has lately been sharply criticized.
After all, in order to protect funding for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is applying the cuts the Office of Management and Budget has directed it to make to key R&D and procurement accounts. For example:
o The Air Force will lose perhaps as many as 110 of the 270 of the F/A-22 fighter/attack aircraft it has intended to buy. These ?Raptors? would permit the replacement of thirty-year-old F-15s with stealthy planes capable of providing assured air superiority and support for ground forces, even against enemies with advanced anti-aircraft defenses.
o According to press reports, the Marines would be obliged to cut some $1.5 billion from their budget for the revolutionary V-22 ?Osprey? tiltrotor aircraft. This would involve delaying or reducing procurement of the mainstay of the Corps? future combat capabilities, with potentially profound repercussions.
o The Navy will lose one of its twelve aircraft carriers, while its shipbuilding program will be kept at a level that will reduce the service to fewer than 270 ships ? a number clearly inadequate to meet the Nation?s worldwide missions. Particularly worrisome are the severe cuts envisioned in the needed modernization of the submarine fleet ? arguably the most valuable and certainly among the most flexible of sea-going platforms, given their important roles in sea control and intelligence operations.
Nowhere is it more likely that John Kerry would have cut back Pentagon spending than in the portfolio of the Missile Defense Agency. Yet, here too, President Bush is said to be considering $5 billion in reductions over the next five years. If implemented, these could: essentially eliminate the most promising means of performing boost-phase missile intercepts (namely, using an airborne laser and/or from space); preclude building out the initial, very modest deployment of ground-based interceptors; and sharply curtail sea-based anti-missile defenses. So much for the robust, layered missile defense Mr. Bush has promised to put in place.
If the proposed defense budget cuts go forward, the American people would be entitled to feel they have been subjected to a classic ?bait and switch.? They rejected the candidate whose record had been one of voting against every major weapon system. They accepted the Bush-Cheney team?s criticism of John Kerry that he could not be trusted to keep us safe. Now, the guys they elected seem poised to hollow-out the military in ways that will make the recent tempest over the lack of ?up-armored? Humvees in Iraq pale by comparison.
The public understands the need for, and is prepared to make, sacrifices in time of war. President Bush must ask them to do so ? and avoid unduly increasing those already being asked of the U.S. military.