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Booms and busts, that’s the typical funding pattern for America’s military. “Five times in the last 90 years, the United States has disarmed after a conflict: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and then the cold war,” testified Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2008.

Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton cut defense spending dramatically after the cold war. President Obama is currently proposing yet another “peace dividend” even though he has surged forces in Afghanistan, launched a new operation in Libya, and increased counterterrorism operations with Pakistan and Yemen. Nor is there any reason to think he would hesitate to send troops to provide relief in the next natural disaster, just as he has used them to aid victims in Japan and Haiti.

Cashing peace dividends is a risky business. And it’s certainly a riskier proposition now than it was at the close of the cold war. The Reagan military buildup created a cushion of sorts that allowed defense investment to be deferred in the 1990s, even though military operations were ramped up. But defense budget increases since 9/11 have generated little cushion. They have largely been consumed by current operations, not on future preparedness.

Exacerbating the strain is the fact that the Iraq war was not preceded by a mobilization. Indeed, it followed a decade-long procurement holiday, meaning that purchase of big weapons programs were put off while existing systems were extended. As a result, today’s military is stressed, rusting, and at risk of going hollow.

In March, Rudy DeLeon, a former deputy secretary of defense under President Clinton, told Congress: “The 1980s defense budgets were largely investment budgets. And the budgets of the last decade have really been budgets to support military forces in the field in combat. And so they have been high on consumables.”

Further cuts to the modernization of military equipment merely defers bills; it does not eliminate them. U.S. forces will always need something to fly, sail and drive in to accomplish their global missions. And the money spent on purchase of new weapons systems accounts for just one-seventh of the defense budget.

To save money on defense, every other account must be scrutinized. Savings of $70 billion can be achieved from a number of reforms.

Secretary Gates has proposed efficiency initiatives, including senior personnel freezes among both civilian and military employees, and closing redundant offices. The recommendations of the co-chairmen of the president's deficit commission include freezing salaries and bonuses of Defense Department civilian staffers for three years, and replacing military personnel who perform commercial services -- like trash collection and fire prevention -- with lower-paid civilian personnel.

Other proposals include expanding the use of private-public partnerships at the military's logistical centers, modernizing base operations and defense supply and maintenance systems, changing the depot pricing structure for repairs, and reducing wear on military hardware by adopting measures to prevent corrosion and to change how some equipment is used.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a research fellow for national security studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The New York Times

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