This year the U.S. is expected to spend $700 billion on defense. That's twice what was spent in 2001, and as much as is spent on the rest of the world's militaries combined.
Defense is the U.S. government's biggest discretionary expenditure, but given the level of the national debt — and the drive to reduce government spending — calls are louder than ever to find cost savings.
Ret. Army Col. Douglas Macgregor says there are ways to reap major savings when it comes to defense. He recently wrote about the subject in an article titled "Lean, Mean Fighting Machine" for Foreign Policy magazine. He tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that the U.S. simply cannot afford "wars of choice."
"Emphasis on choice," Macgregor says. "If you look at all of the interventions that we have launched since 1945 — beginning with Vietnam in 1965 and moving forward — none of them have changed the international system at all, and none of them have directly benefited us strategically."
World War II was the last military event that really had a strategic global impact, he says. "Americans need to understand that these wars of choice, these interventions of choice, have been both unnecessary, counterproductive, strategically self-defeating and infinitely too expensive for what we can actually afford."
A 'Somewhat Radical' Plan
Macgregor recommends swift reduction of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that's just the beginning. In a plan he acknowledges as "somewhat radical," he proposes a 40 percent reduction of the defense budget in just three years. Forcing the Pentagon to adapt to a drastically smaller budget, he says, will streamline the organization.
If you look at the Soviets, the Royal Navy, British Army and various other military formations over the last couple centuries, Macgregor says, "what you discover is that most innovation — and the most positive change, an adaptation to reality — occurs not in a flood of money, but in its absence.
"That's when people have to sit down and come to terms with reality, and realize that they cannot go on, into the future, and do what they've done in the past," he says.
The nature of warfare has changed, too, he says. With new technology and different players, things can be done in other ways — and more cheaply.
Prioritizing Spending Cuts
Most of the current U.S. military effort and strategy is either self-defeating or simply unnecessary, he says. "It's spending that we don't need."
That call catches ears these days, as Congress and the Obama administration battle over spending cuts. Those cuts are often aimed at domestic programs, but Macgregor says any hope for implementing his proposal requires that the U.S. reconsider its priorities.
"We have to deliver the services that were promised under Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security," he says. "We cannot honor those obligations ... without reducing defense and reorienting our defense posture to a world that's very different today than the one in which most of these forces were created and invented."
Profiting From Military Industries
Military and the private defense industries in America are enormous, providing millions of jobs across a lot of states. That makes many members of Congress even more reluctant to scale back on the military budget — particularly at a time when the nation is looking to create jobs, not cut them. Macgregor says creating prosperity shouldn't depend on military profits.
"What we have right now are very powerful military bureaucracies tied to the defense industries that want to stay in business." They're larger than we need, he says, but congressional interests see military budgets as a way to sustain prosperity by redistributing the income from those industries.
"This is an enormous problem," Macgregor says, "but we've got to deal with it, because we can't afford it, and it will ultimately consume us over time."
Despite these challenges, Macgregor says his proposals do have some support on Capitol Hill. "That's very important," he says, "because I think there are Democrats and Republicans who can agree on these things."
Like Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Ron Paul (R-TX), Macgregor says — two people on opposite ends of the spectrum in domestic terms but who have come to similar conclusions on foreign and defense policy.
"And they are not alone," Macgregor adds. "There are many, many, many more. I think we will see more in the future as it becomes clear that we cannot deal with the domestic problem until we deal with the foreign and defense policy problem. That has to come first. Then we can begin talking seriously about what we have to do to restructure the debt."