Pop quiz:

Name the last three presidents who significantly cut military spending.

If your answer is George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon, you would be correct. To address budget deficits, Bush I and Reagan, in his second term, reduced military spending by a combined 23 percent. Perhaps even more apropos to today’s fiscal realities, Nixon reduced military spending by a whopping 27 percent between 1969 and 1974 to pay for social programs he felt were important to our nation.

Legend has it that career criminal Willie Sutton, asked why he robbed banks, replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

If we are serious about cutting or redirecting our federal spending to important priorities like health care and education, we need to go where the money is, too. Roughly 59 percent of discretionary federal spending is military spending. That’s where we need to look.

The amount of savings we can realize by eliminating unnecessary weapons systems and scaling back our military’s ever-expanding role could total nearly $800 billion during a seven-year period, beginning in 2012 and continuing through 2018. That’s a cut of just under 15 percent.

What could we do with the savings? We could pay for health coverage for up to 40 million Americans each year. We could immediately stop firing hundreds of thousands of teachers. Eliminating these jobs is hurting our local economies and endangering our children’s future.

Don’t believe we can do it?

Gordan Adams and Matthew Leatherman are two experts who aren’t household names, but should be. They’ve penned an article for Foreign Affairs headlined, “A Leaner and Meaner Defense: How to Cut the Pentagon’s Budget While Improving Its Performance.”

The article discusses many things–the Pentagon’s proper role, weapons systems we don’t need, out-of-control costs associated with military payroll and pensions. Most importantly, it addresses how we choose between our desire to be the world’s sheriff and the urgent need to address our economy.

Along the way, the authors lay out a series of cuts that would save hundreds of billions over the next few years alone. Examples:

We could cut the F-35 fighter jet. That aircraft runs $90 million a pop. Stocking up on the 2,443 F-35s Washington wants will exceed $1 trillion. The Atlantic wryly notes that this is more than Australia’s gross domestic product.

We could scrap the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft designed to fly like a plane and take off and land like a helicopter.

Despite the $18 billion the Pentagon plans to spend on this gizmo beginning next year, the Osprey tilts too much. During testing, some 30 service members were killed in four well-publicized accidents.

We could drop part of our missile defense program, leaving in place our Patriot system but saving $34 billion beginning next year. We could cut the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, saving $24 million a pop. This vehicle, intended for amphibious assault, seems entirely superfluous, given that no amphibious landing has taken place in combat conditions for decades.

These are just some of their suggestions. There are others. What’s important is that the $788 billion in proposed savings wouldn’t make America any less strong and resilient. It would, however, better equip us to make investments that strengthen us at home.

It would also leave President Barack Obama occupying a rather unique place in history. He would be the first Democratic president since before World War II to actually cut military spending. That’s “change” we not only can believe in, but can pocket for our future.

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Jeff BlumBen Cohen,

Ben Cohen is a founder of Ben & Jerry's and has been working for sensible defense policies for more than a decade. Jeff Blum is executive director of USAction, a federation of 24 state affiliates and partners that organizes for a more just America.

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