This week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the Pentagon’s plans to cut the size of the military down to its smallest size since before World War II. In addition, there are plans to retire some jet fleets in service since the Cold War while limiting pay raises, lowering housing allowances and increasing healthcare premiums for soldiers. According to Hagel, the plans are in line with trying to curb the financial crisis that the United States currently finds itself in. Last year, the United States spent about six times more than the next highest-spending nation, China, on military and defense. The total budget came in at $672.9 billion, about 17 percent of the total United States budget, while China spent a little over $100 billion.
While the measures would help curb military spending, they won’t be popular in Congress. Republicans have already said they would fight against any measures which would severely shrink the military, claiming that the current world situation requires a large standing army. Currently there are 520,000 U.S. troops; the proposed cuts would shrink that number to between 440,000 and 450,000. Even though those numbers seem large, they are actually quite low compared to what they were during the Korean War and Vietnam War, when there were about 1.6 million active duty soldiers. The cuts come on the heels of President Obama’s promise to withdraw all troops from active duty in Afghanistan—a long-anticipated move.
The fact that Republicans are already promising to fight these budget cuts is not promising when the cuts do eventually make it to Congress for voting. If any make it through, the cuts will probably be severely reduced, in keeping with the Republican ideal of a large standing army. However, the United States, once it withdraws from Afghanistan, will not be involved in any ongoing conflicts. It makes you wonder whether or not any country truly needs to spend so many resources on a relatively unused body. This question will become even more prominent as robots and drones take on more of the functions and jobs that once had to be performed by humans, such as air strikes.
So should the United States cut military spending, and should one of the ways to do that be with shrinking the overall number of our active troops? The short answer to both those questions is, in my opinion, yes. The United States spends more than six times the amount that a country with a population three times the size of it does on military and defense. A lot of that money goes toward research and development, but a lot of it also goes toward supporting those who make their livelihoods from the military. The amount of resources which go toward supporting more than half a million active duty soldiers is incredible. However, even though the United States is considered a superpower in the eyes of other nations, does it truly need to prove its dominance over the world through the size of its military? Do we need bases all over the world, and the hundreds of thousands of active troops needed to maintain such bases?
Although the military (officially the Department of Defense) used only 17.7 percent of the total budget for the United States in 2013, it was the third largest expenditure, behind only the Department of Health and Human Services (24.7 percent) and the Social Security Administration (23.2 percent). In comparison, the Department of Education received only 1.9 percent of the budget, totaling $71.9 billion. If just a small portion of the money spent on the military was transferred to education, could you imagine the possibilities? But, of course, that is ignoring why the military cuts are being proposed in the first place—to reduce the total budget overall. Merely moving money around will not solve the budget crisis, much as many would like to see a lot more money going toward education and public works and services.
Nonetheless, I think that reducing military and defense spending is taking a step in the right direction toward both solving the budget crisis, as well as moving into the modern military world. With the United States pulling out of the only conflict in which it is currently involved beyond regular deployments in many bases around the world, reducing the size of the army and active duty service members seems a natural, logical step.
Hopefully though, Congress will let through some of these budget cuts and reduce spending by enough of an amount to be significant and to show that being a superpower in the modern world isn’t all about having the biggest, best military. Perhaps the United States can start focusing its energies on education and innovation and join other modern nations who place their focus not on conflict, but on the future.
—Lily Elbaum ’16 is an international studies major.