- Last Updated: 8:49 AM, August 4, 2011
- Posted: 11:11 PM, August 3, 2011
The debt-ceiling deal could also be called America’s Unilateral Disarmament Plan. Over 10 years, it threatens cuts of more than $900 billion from the US armed forces -- a defense rollback more than half the size of the entire economy of Canada or India.
Some would say that’s a sign of just how big the Pentagon really is. I’d say it’s a sign that America is in full strategic retreat, perhaps further back than at any time since before World War II.
Friends and allies, please take note. Our enemies certainly will.
Cuts of this size will mean major force reductions and restructuring, plus the end of major programs -- very probably including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It means sharp reductions in replacement parts for ships, vehicles and aircraft, which means less time for operational training and exercises.
Expect our Navy to fall to pre-World War One levels. Our hard-pressed and overstretched soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen can also expect no pay raise in the foreseeable future -- and possibly cuts in benefits. It could mean the end of an independent Marine Corps.
And all this while America is fighting three wars.
We’ve seen major force-reductions before, in the Carter years after Vietnam and the Clinton years after the Cold War. But, with the economy on the brink of a second recession, we may find it far harder to rapidly reverse course and rapidly re-expand our forces should the need arise.
Something like this happened to America in the 1930s, when the Great Depression became the excuse for cutting military spending across the board. Military spending fell to 2 percent of GNP -- about where it’s headed now.
We mothballed dozens of naval vessels and mustered out their personnel. For lack of fuel, the Navy cut back cruises and patrols, while battleships that did sail had to leave 40 percent of their crew onshore. The Marine Corps suffered a 24 percent cut in manpower, while the Army had no money to replace its World War I-era rifles and machine guns.
When the Army staged national maneuvers in 1939, it had to hire Good Humor trucks to stand in for the enemy tanks. There simply weren’t enough real ones to go around.
By February 1941, the Army Air Corps found itself with fewer than 500 combat planes -- even as Europe and Asia’s skies were ablaze with war.
America’s first line of defense was its Navy, the world’s second largest. But a decade of meager budgets and a shrunken Marine Corps had forced it to abandon any hope of forward force projection. The best it could do to deter Japanese aggression was to park itself at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, with its ships neatly lined up in Battleship Row -- just waiting for the first Japanese bombs and torpedoes to fall.
America’s armed forces aren’t poised for another Pearl Harbor -- yet. But that’s what a hollowed-out military will mean further down the road.
Keeping our military big and strong isn’t just a way of keeping America and its allies safe. It also prevents a major fiscal crunch if we have to mobilize our forces from a standing start to meet a major threat.
We managed to do it in World War II -- by devoting almost half our GNP to the military, drafting every young American we could get our hands on and enduring rationing, price controls and no new cars or refrigerators.
Could we do it again? The debt deal may force us to find out. In the gathering twilight of American power, no one can say how or when the new dawn will come.
Arthur Herman is an American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar.Follow @NYPostOpinion