Washington’s talking about cutting the military budget. Whoopee.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently revealed plans to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from the Pentagon’s budget in the next decade, with possibly more reductions on the way.

We’re going to have fewer soldiers, fewer warplanes and ships, and not so many missiles. We’ll cut back a bit on nuclear weapons. If Congress buys this plan, the Pentagon’s $530 billion-a-year base budget, which excludes extras like the wars we’re actually fighting, would shrink to a mere $472 billion by 2013. Double whoopee.

Not everyone is happy with the plan. Critics say that so piddling a sum as $472 billion would leave us naked to our enemies. We wouldn’t even be able to fight two wars at a time, they say.

To which Panetta replies, maybe not. But we’ll be able to fight one major war and have enough strength left over to “spoil” a second enemy’s malign intentions elsewhere. Half a whoopee.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

I’ve always been suspicious of the two-war strategy. To me, it’s like having a two-car garage. You may not really need two cars, but if you have a two-car garage, chances are you’ll own two cars sooner or later. One-and-a-half wars are plenty. If we have more enemies than that, let them take a number and form a line.

There’s also a contingent of critics who complain that cutting troop levels might leave us unprepared to fight a grinding and long land war in Asia.

Oh darn, and that’s what I wanted for my birthday this year — another protracted land war in Asia. Now I’m going to have to settle for diplomacy, sanctions, and boring stuff like that.

Buck up, folks. Even with those cuts and more like them we will still be — by far — the most militarily powerful country on earth by several orders of magnitude. We just can’t go off and invade a country anytime we had a hint of a suspicion that they might be planning to do something bad to us.

Which is what we do. We’re the most war-prone people on earth. Over the past 60 years we’ve invaded, bombed, or sought to subvert more countries — Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Cuba, Somalia, Ethiopia, Panama, Iraq (twice), Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chile, Laos, Cambodia, the Balkans, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Indonesia, Guyana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Brazil, Greece, and Libya, as well as Guatemala, Nicaragua, Angola, and El Salvador by proxy — than our bean counters can count. Some of these operations transpired under a NATO or United Nations umbrella, but most didn’t.

One of the chief targets of the budget cutters is the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a stealth model that theoretically eludes radar detection and is presently budgeted at $400 billion for 2,500 planes, or $160 million-a-pop. And if past history is any indication, it won’t work.

Which won’t matter, because very little of this is about “defense.” It’s about the money and political profit to be gained from the building of ever more expensive weapons systems of dubious utility.

A friend of mine, Nick Kotz, once wrote a book on the development of a similar weapons system, the B-1 bomber.

Built in the 1980s, it cost $28 billion (not chump change in those days) and hardly ever saw combat. It was designed for nuclear war, you see, and we haven’t had one of those yet (unless you count Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which no one does). A few can still fly, but they’re hideously expensive to operate, so they don’t.

Toward the end of his book Kotz takes us through a B-1 assembly line in Palmdale, California. First we learn about the forward fuselage, which was made in Ohio, then the middle and rear elements (Texas), the tail section (Maryland), and the nose landing gear (California) with tires from Ohio. And so it went. Before the plane was fully assembled, more than 70 manufacturing sites were accounted for, each represented by a pious member of Congress with a handout.

That’s what military spending is all about and why it’s so difficult to cut. It’s called the military-industrial complex.

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Donald Kaul

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. otherwords.org

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