Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Our nation’s ground forces face considerable challenges. The Army and Marines are both heavily engaged fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beyond these short-term tests, our ground forces need to rebuild or replace equipment destroyed or damaged in these conflicts as well as prepare to engage elsewhere in the world should the need arise. Our Army and Marines need greater funding.

But should any increase in funding for our ground forces come at the expense of the other services? One view argues that since the Army and the Marines bear the preponderance of the human cost of our current conflicts, any increases in their budget share ought to come at the expense of the Air Force and Navy, both of which are less directly engaged in what are predominantly ground conflicts. Such a conclusion, however, fails to consider the impact this choice would have on the many benefits provided by our nation’s air- and sea-power.

With the advent of globalization, our national economy has grown increasingly tied to the international economy. The Commerce Department recently reported that one in five U.S. manufacturing jobs is linked to exports, while agricultural exports employ another one million people. The global economy is fueled by petroleum products, much of which are transported to their markets by sea. The success of global trade results, in large measure, from the freedom of navigation that international commerce enjoys on the high seas. Such freedom began in the 19th century with the dominance of Britain’s Royal Navy; it continues today due to the efforts of the U.S. Navy.

The Air Force plays a crucial, yet overlooked, role in the conflict in Iraq. U.S. air-power has an enviable reputation as it has prevented any air attack on U.S. or its coalition partners since the Korean War. Our success in the air allows our ground forces to operate with the security of not having to worry about “the third dimension,” while forcing our adversaries to contend with the consequences of ceding such control. How many soldiers or Marines would have made a conscious choice to go about their daily business today in Iraq or Afghanistan without the benefits of air superiority, without persistent surveillance and reconnaissance, or without on-call strike aircraft just a few minutes away?

The Air Force and Navy are also key to our nation’s unprecedented conventional deterrent. Measuring the impact of deterrence is almost impossible, since it is, by definition, a psychological influence on an adversary’s decision-making. Yet it is certain that our nation’s considerable successes in recent high-intensity conflicts — due in large part to air- and sea-power — have had a deterrent effect on potential adversaries.

Air- and sea-power provide critical capabilities for our nation’s policy-makers. But our air and maritime forces also face mounting budgetary challenges. The Air Force in particular, which is operating the oldest air fleet in its history, is beginning to see the strains of almost 16 years of sustained combat service — many forget that U.S. airpower maintained no-fly zones in Iraq from 1991 to 2003, with little ground-force presence. Without modernization, our nation’s ability to provide ground forces with the accustomed luxury of an environment free of enemy air attack would be in jeopardy. Such freedom, taken for granted by many, should not be mortgaged to pay today’s bills.

The current debate overlooks one option. Future military budget shares need not be zero sum. The Office of Management and Budget recently reported that the percentage of Gross Domestic Product devoted to national defense is at near-record lows, even with generous increases after September 11. Military spending as a percentage of discretionary spending is also at near-record lows. Increasing the size of the pie, the overall defense budget, would allow all our nation’s military services to fill pressing needs such as expanding the ranks, rebuilding and modernizing the force and preparing for the challenges that the future holds.

Our nation stands at a crossroads. The versatility and robustness of our armed forces will be crucial to our country’s future foreign-policy success in a world where the only certainty is uncertainty. Zero-sum arguments that advocate shifting money to one service at the expense of another overlook the other choice — increasing the defense budget. While the nature of the current conflict suggests that boosting defense spending to a share in line with past conflicts, such as World War II, Korea and Vietnam, is not necessary, an increase to the levels seen at the end of the Cold War — our nation’s most recent “long war” — is warranted. It’s the best, and smartest, decision we can make.

Lt. Col. Peter W. Huggins is professor of comparative military studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base.

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