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Tonight’s vice presidential debate will offer a clear choice when it comes to America’s national defense. Vice President Joe Biden and the Obama administration have overseen hundreds of billions in military spending cuts while in office—before sequestration (automatic additional budget cuts) are set to take effect early next year.
To date, the president’s defense budget cuts have killed or indefinitely delayed key modernization plans from each branch of service: the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor, new Army networked vehicles and unmanned systems, the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and the Navy’s new cruiser and ballistic missile submarine to name a few.
During last week’s presidential candidate debate, Obama proudly claimed to be responsible for deep defense cuts throughout his time in office because they allowed the administration to focus education and training. He mentioned specifically the cancellation of a U.S. Air Force aircraft program. Expect Vice President Biden to follow in his footsteps tonight as the foundation is laid to take ever more defense dollars in a second Obama term and divert them to other federal spending priorities such as transportation, basic research, food stamps, and student loans; not debt reduction.
This approach stands in stark contrast with Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity,” the budget Ryan crafted as chairman of the House Budget Committee. While Ryan’s 2013 budget only provided an incremental improvement over the Obama administration’s military numbers—it added roughly 0.7 percent to the Defense Department topline—it did offer America a plausible path forward to reduce its growing burden of debt.
Ryan has a sober-eyed understanding that domestic spending, particularly on entitlements, is crowding out other federal priorities like providing for the common defense. As America borrows more from China in order to pay for unsustainable spending, our military will increasingly be asked to contribute disproportionately to debt reduction or other new spending.
For most of the past century, the American public has maintained an unwritten but nearly sacred covenant with the men and women of the military. The nation has agreed that when those in uniform are sent into combat on our behalf, they will fight as the most sophisticated, powerful, and effective force possible. Technological superiority and advanced training ensure that when our sons and daughters or friends and neighbors go to war, they have every tool possible to get the mission done and come home safely and quickly.
This bond is rapidly eroding amidst as deeper defense cuts loom. If cuts like the past three years continue to key modernization programs, American forces will someday find themselves outgunned and overwhelmed in battle. And, by then, it will be too late to reverse course.
Voters want to hear specifics of each candidates’ plans, not just attacks on the other guy’s proposals. Tonight, they may just start to wonder if the only plan in town is Paul Ryan’s.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.
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