U.S. military stretched thin-at just the wrong time

Pressure is mounting from all sides to reduce spending for sophisticated U.S. military equipment and weapons, and it’s coming at the wrong time.

John Keller, Editor in Chief

Pressure is mounting from all sides to reduce spending for sophisticated U.S. military equipment and weapons, and it’s coming at the wrong time.

U.S. defense spending has been on the rise for the past six years, and the Pentagon’s 2008 budget request, if enacted, would make it seven. Not even during the Reagan defense buildup two decades ago, however, did we see such sustained growth. Many people can sense a change in the wind.

The American public is war-weary as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan enter their fifth year-longer even than World War II. The Democratic Party is in charge of Congress, and its stated priorities are other than continuing the war. Fiscal conservatives in and out of government, meanwhile, are growing increasingly uneasy with the grinding expenses of military operations.

This doesn’t even consider the human cost of the war, which has killed or wounded about 27,000 American military personnel in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

The defense budget is pressed, the public has had enough, and Congress wants to effect change as quickly as possible. Not good days, it seems, to expect much attention to improving U.S. military capability. Everyone, it seems, needs a break. This is the reason I look on today’s headline with such dread.

Radical Islamic forces throughout the world are as determined as ever to hit U.S. interests as hard as they can when and where we least expect it. Yes, we haven’t experienced another serious domestic terrorist attack since 9/11-more than five years ago-but I believe another major attack is not a matter of if, but when.

The government of Iran, if its rhetoric is to be believed, is bent on developing and acquiring nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missiles with which to threaten countries ranging from India to Eastern Europe, from Africa and Saudi Arabia to Russia.

The North Korean government is still a wild card, despite the most recent diplomatic agreements. I think the notion that the North Korean government would willingly give up its nuclear capability and quit developing nuclear weapons is laughable. So do a lot of diplomats around the world.

To our south, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is determined to create as much trouble for the U.S. government as he can. Without a doubt, many of the South Americans protesting the visit of U.S. President George W. Bush in March were Chavez’s surrogates. The man is openly hostile to the U.S. and is likely to remain so.

Across the Pacific are even more ominous developments.

China is an economic and military rival to the United States; it’s hard to get around that fact. The U.S. has longstanding military and business interests in an autonomous Taiwan, while China considers the island a renegade province that inevitably will be brought back into the greater Chinese fold one way or another.

Conflicts in the political and military interests of the U.S. and China often have come to a head in and around the Taiwan Strait. The latest was last October when a hitherto undetected Chinese Song-class attack submarine-equipped with wake-home torpedoes, antiship cruise missiles, and other sophisticated weaponry-surfaced just five miles from the American aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and its surface battle group.

If it’s true, the Chinese submarine was not noticed until it surfaced within sight of the Kitty Hawk, which is cause for alarm. U.S. carrier battle groups operate on the assumption that the aircraft carrier is invulnerable because of its protective screen of ships and aircraft designed to detect and destroy enemy aircraft, ships, and submarines.

That Chinese submarine last October suggests that perhaps this isn’t as true as it once was. It’s debatable whether China’s submarine technology is approaching par with the U.S. Navy, but it’s obvious that China is serious about improving its naval capability.

China is developing two new nuclear-powered submarines-one that fires ballistic missiles, and the other that is more of a traditional attack submarine armed with torpedoes and missiles. For these vessels, China is also developing antiship cruise missiles and antiship ballistic missiles with maneuvering re-entry vehicles fitted with radar and infrared seekers.

These platforms and weapons are designed to neutralize U.S. carrier-based naval power in the Western Pacific.

Add this to the mix: China’s defense budget next year should increase by nearly 18 percent from this year, U.S. officials believe. China maintains that its nation’s military forces are defensive in nature, and moreover that its Navy is designed to protect its growing global sea trade. Defensive or offensive, however, a threat is a threat.

I’ve been accused in these pages of being a chicken hawk for my view on national defense and global politics. Some people contend that world events like those I’ve outlined are no real threat to the United States; only alarmists and the paranoid view them otherwise.

I have to admit that such is a nice way to look at the world. I’d like to believe that the only enemies are those in our own minds, that the world isn’t really such a dangerous place. But when it comes down to it, I like to paraphrase Fran Lebowitz: those who aren’t curmudgeons just aren’t paying attention.

Let this be something to think about this spring as the U.S. Congress entertains a variety of plans to leave Iraq abruptly to the tender mercies of sworn U.S. enemies and divert federal spending away from defense and put it toward fashionable social causes.

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