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Column: Dollars and nonsense

In the time it takes you to read this column, the U.S. Department of Defense will spend roughly $3 million. If you were President George W. Bush, the amount would presumably be quite a bit more. This is, of course, only fitting, given that the current administration has presided over the largest real increase in our nation's military spending in 20 years. The Pentagon now spends nearly a billion dollars every single day, a total of $355 billion in fiscal year 2003 - and this does not include the cost of any operations in Iraq. This level of spending, even for the quasi-wartime situation in which the U.S. finds itself, is excessive, irresponsible and totally unnecessary. The 2002-07 defense build-up envisioned by the White House verges on sheer lunacy.

As a firm supporter of a strong military, I recognize that as far as national security is concerned, the idea of penny-pinching is nonsense. It is vital to uphold American superiority in both conventional and strategic weapons, maintain a viable global presence, secure the homeland against terrorism and improve standards of living among the men and women of the armed forces. The current defense budget, however, goes far beyond what is necessary for accomplishing these objectives. Even worse, it demonstrates the persistence of an anachronistic "Cold War Lite" mentality among Pentagon leaders, who often favor wasteful spending over practical measures to enhance domestic security.

It is a fact that U.S. military spending is now almost 40 percent of the world total, six times that of Russia, and 20 times that of the combined total of the seven "rogue states." If NATO and our Pacific Rim allies are brought into the picture, America and its closest friends spend two-thirds of the world total on defense. While countries like North Korea maintain massive armies through conscription, soldiers that are poorly armed, underpaid and demoralized do not present a serious threat to battle-ready U.S. forces.

The most pressing problem, though, is not the actual size of the budget, but how it's spent. Continued emphasis on expensive, bulky hardware makes no sense when a major war is inconceivable with any of our potential foes. The list of unnecessary development projects could fill this entire column, but consider the following examples - an upcoming Air Force purchase of 295 F-22 Raptors for nearly $70 billion; the Joint Strike Fighter program, which could cost upwards of $100 billion; plus, constant funding for more nuclear attack submarines, long-range bombers and heavy artillery. This is a shopping list that belongs in the Reagan era. Some of these projects literally date back to the Cold War days. The F-22, a tactical fighter, was conceived in the 1980s to counter the new generation of MiGs, but as we're not about to fight the Russian air force, do we really need so many?

At a time when our military must be highly mobile and NATO is taking the lead in establishing rapid reaction forces, the key word for the Pentagon seems to be "big," just as it was 20 years ago. Rather than investing heavily in special forces, intelligence, unmanned aerial drones and counter-terrorism technology, the brass is still fixated on the long-gone past. Anti-terrorism operations, the supposed justification of all the extra spending, does not require a new fleet of destroyers or attack subs. Homeland defense, however, is seriously imperiled when there are Air Force wings in the continental United States with a shortage of basic air-to-air missiles, as was the case on Sept. 11. In short, the transformation of the military promised by Bush as he entered office never materialized, even after it became an urgent necessity.

Several steps are needed at this point to make our military priorities consistent with the threats America faces. First, there is a strong argument for reducing the number of U.S. bases around the globe, particularly in Europe. There are over 100,000 U.S. troops in Europe, the bulk of which remain exactly where they were at the height of the Cold War: in Germany. If we expect our European allies to assume increasing responsibility for their own defense, we should take the first step and gradually bring home at least half of the 100,000. Certainly, a viable U.S. presence must remain in this strategically important part of the world, but it shouldn't be a substitute for European preparedness.

Second, as soon as the Pentagon conducts its next Nuclear Posture Review, there should be substantial cuts in our launch-ready nuclear arsenal. The 2001 Bush-Putin agreement was a good start, but it did not address the most immediate danger of a nuclear arsenal, which is accidental launch. Keeping thousands of nuclear missiles and bombers at a high alert level is not only expensive, but also dangerous. The problem is more acute in Russia, which does not have America's sophisticated safeguards, but to persuade Moscow to de-alert most of its missiles, we will have to do the same. In the intermediate-term, we could - perhaps even unilaterally - reduce our entire operational stockpile to as few as 1,000 warheads, with a modest reserve beyond that level.

Finally, there should be an immediate end to the expensive, superfluous and scientifically unproven national missile defense program. The tens of billions such a system would cost - on top of $134 billion already wasted - can be better spent elsewhere. No missile defense will protect American cities from a nuclear device carried across the border in a suitcase, so a good place to start would be to devote at least some of that money to strengthening border security.

Here's a tip for whoever ends up challenging Bush in 2004: Develop a public plan to cut the Pentagon budget by 15 percent - about $50 billion - while reallocating the remaining sum to programs that actually enhance national security instead of merely lining the pockets of defense contractors. In more ways than one, it might just prove a winning strategy.

Pavel Molchanov is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Tuesday.

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