Gambling on security

Is America safe enough to afford a downsized military?

Not if it wants to stay that way, Defense expert Mackenzie Eaglen argued at a Capitol Hill policy debate Thursday afternoon.

At the National Security Network-sponsored event, Eaglen, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, faced off against Michael Cohen, a Century Foundation fellow, on his premise that America was enjoying one of its most secure eras and should reallocate its resources accordingly.

Cohen argued that a widespread perception that the country was facing real threats on all fronts was perpetuated by a “professional threat industry” that included academics, think tanks, and military leaders. The true greatest and decline in America, he said, was on the inside, with failing education systems and economic woes.

With the Defense Department at risk to lose over $1 trillion from its budget over the next decade if sequestration takes effect, Eaglen argued that the military had no way to replace aging and disintegrating weapons systems and grow with technology, thereby maintaining the country’s secure frontier and outlook.

“I would come to this moment in time looking backward on what helped create these conditions,” she said. “Looking forward, these aren’t a birthright. Things haven’t always been this way, and it’s so easy in this town to forget that’s the case.”

Cohen said he wasn’t afraid of a small military, because that would limit the conflicts in which the U.S. could become involved, something he challenged was a good thing.

“Having a large military, you tend to want to use it,” he said.

Eaglen countered that there was much more on the line for those who chose such a rosy view of world affairs.

“As you draw down and you take that risk, the challenge here is what if (Cohen is) wrong, not what if I’m wrong,” she said. “I don’t want to spend extra money; I’m as conservative as anyone on this. But I’d rather spend slightly more on my insurance policy than get it wrong and have to double down.”

She argued that a strong a capable military also kept potentially hostile and rising powers, like Iran, for example, from considering an act of aggression toward the U.S. Still, she said, maintaining that military required funding that allowed for maintenance of capabilities and investments in new technology. 

“The margins of U.S. technological military supremacy are declining,” Eaglen said. “At some point they will be overtaken.”

The debate is well-timed as the prospect of sequestration looms for the Defense Department. When Congress returns after a two-week recess next week, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will resume intensive discussion of budgeting for Fiscal 2013 and onward.