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The US needs to build a smarter military, not a bigger arsenal

Cut missile defense and expand resources for the Army and National Guard.

By Lawrence Korb, Sanford Gottlieb / March 23, 2006



WASHINGTON

As the war in Iraq enters its fourth year with no end in sight, support for the war among the American public is dropping rapidly. But more ominously, so is support for US engagement in the world. President Bush is aware of this and in his State of the Union address and his recently released National Security Strategy, he warned of the attraction of isolationism in a complex and challenging time.

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While this desire to be relieved of the burden of global responsibility is understandable, it is wrong. US military force in conjunction with other instruments of American power will be needed to protect our security for the foreseeable future. What the president must do is lay out the circumstances for its use.

Above all, the armed forces must be ready to defend the homeland. They must also, with allies, be prepared to deter and defeat aggression, halt genocide, and share in peacekeeping.

Even homeland defense requires international collaboration in order to destroy global terrorist networks and prevent attacks. Intelligence agents, special police, and financial experts at home and abroad are as vital to this mission as the fighter pilots who fly over our capital and the Coast Guardsmen who protect our shores. The military role must expand when necessary, as in Afghanistan, to eliminate a regime that provides a haven to the terrorists. It's not enough to sweep away such a regime; the US must also serve as midwife to a new, viable government.

To bolster homeland defense, the Army National Guard should return to its core mission as chief protector when large-scale disasters occur, its resources directed toward coping with terrorist attacks and devastating hurricanes.

Homeland defense does not, however, require National Missile Defense. North Korea is often cited as the rationale for this costly program (over $40 billion since President Bush took office). Should Pyongyang acquire a credible means of delivering nuclear weapons, the threat of a US retaliation would almost certainly deter a Korean attack. Missile defense, however, is powerless against hijacked airliners and smuggled bombs.

But since the potential for conventional warfare between nations still exists, the US military must maintain sufficient forces to deter or defeat attacks by North Korea against South Korea, China against Taiwan, or Iran against Israel.

Deterrence and war fighting call for a flexible and agile military - but not a massive nuclear arsenal like ours. We have 5,000 deployed H-bombs, many on hair-trigger alert, and another 5,000 in reserve. In addition, 600 to 700 tactical nuclear weapons are ready for battlefield use. A nuclear arsenal of this size has no rational military purpose. By holding at risk critical military targets in a handful of countries, the US could, and should, reduce its deployment to 600 warheads, plus another 400 in reserve.

Most military missions are geared to national security threats. We accept other missions because we're human. Such is the case with genocide. The slaughter of as many as 800,000 people in Rwanda was not a direct threat to Americans; it was a moral outrage. As a signatory to the Genocide Convention of 1948, the US is committed "to prevent and to punish" acts intended to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Yet the US and other nations looked away when genocide occurred in Rwanda. Today, the UN must scrounge for help in halting genocide in Darfur. The inadequate African Union force there must be strengthened, and US military transport and communications could provide needed muscle to a new peacekeeping operation. The Pentagon is at long last working on a doctrine for US participation in peacekeeping. It should have happened years ago.

These missions can be accomplished, at far lower cost than currently, by a larger Army that includes a doubling of Special Forces, a robust Coast Guard, and a somewhat smaller Air Force and Navy - provided we eliminate redundant and irrelevant weapon systems. Therefore we should shrink the nuclear arsenal and cancel missile defense, the F/A-22 fighter jet, Virginia class submarines, and the V-22 Osprey helicopter.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who took his post committed to transforming the armed forces, can't cut these major weapon systems. Like many of his predecessors, he has been stymied by the top brass, pork-hungry members of Congress, and big defense contractors. The Pentagon continues to buy everything in sight, and military spending now tops half-a-trillion dollars a year.

American military power has a job to do. But Pentagon bloat and the Iraq war weaken the public's support for its missions.

Lawrence Korb served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information. Sanford Gottlieb worked for 34 years in the peace movement and is the author of "Defense Addiction: Can America Kick the Habit?"

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