President Bush’s 1993 budget called for additional reductions in defense spending totaling $50 billion over five years. Liberal members of Congress immediately sharpened their knives to make even larger cuts. Bush’s recommendations in regard to nuclear weapons were sensible. Termination of the B-2 bomber and Midgetman ICBM programs was justified, as both were far too expensive for the capabilities provided. The “builddown” of existing long-range missiles and warheads is to proceed over the rest of the decade in tandem with the dismantling of Russia’s offensive systems.

However, four-fifths of the Pentagon budget goes for conventional forces. Despite the attention paid to the nuclear arms race, it is still the traditional combat services that do the real fighting and on which the United States depends for power projection and the active defense of its overseas interests. The move away from nuclear arms is not just because the danger of an ideological struggle for world domination has waned. Nuclear weapons have been shown to have limited value in extended deterrence or as a tool of world politics.

The 1993 budget indicated a shift in Bush administration priorities from previous budgets. The earlier five-year defense plan incorporated into the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of October 1990 called for a massive reduction in conventional forces in order to keep funds available for nuclear systems. Now the ax has been turned on the strategic systems with Bush warning that he will not accept deeper cuts in conventional forces. This new scheme makes more sense, but it will be surprising if Bush can (or even tries very hard to) block further moves in Congress towards conventional disarmament. The disarmers claim that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States has a surplus in military capability, particularly in “European-oriented” ground and air forces, which it is alleged the country cannot afford because of the budget crisis. However, neither the facts nor experience supports such a conclusion.

The size of the military is commonly exaggerated. The United States never built up to the levels required to meet the country’s global Cold War commitments. In 1982 these requirements were set by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a peacetime establishment of 23 active Army divisions, four Marine amphibious forces, 24 Navy carrier groups, and 30 active Air Force tactical fighter wings. Even if President Reagan’s complete program had been implemented, force levels would not have reached these goals. Active forces peaked at 18 Army divisions, three Marine amphibious forces, 14 carrier groups, and 24 fighter wings. The Army peaked at 770,000 men in 1989, still far below the 950,000 it had in 1964, the last year of peace before Vietnam. The Reagan program modernized American forces, but the Pentagon never recovered the numerical strength it lost during the malaise of the 1970’s. Now the Army is to be cut to 500,000 men.

During the Persian Gulf War the Army’s crack “heavy divisions” were shipped from Germany to Saudi Arabia along with other units earmarked for NATO. Over 223,000 reservists were called to the colors. This indicates that the United States does not have a post-Cold War “military surplus.” Throughout the Cold War, troops deployed to face the Soviets were used for a variety of other missions.

Yet defense cuts are proceeding as if the Persian Gulf War never took place. By 1995 the Army will lose six divisions, the Navy two carrier groups, and the Air Force nine fighter wings. The Armed Services will lose 25 percent of their personnel. Counting civilian Defense Department employees, over one million people will leave the military establishment. What this means was stated by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney: “If you take all of the force that’s deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm . . . that’s a little over 500,000 people. We’re going to take a force of that size out of the United States military over the next five years.”

Production lines for aircraft and heavy weapons are shutting down in an industrial sector where the number of firms engaged in defense work was already shrinking. It will be very difficult to (in current jargon) “reconstitute” the nation’s fighting forces. In their 1991 Joint Net Assessment the Joint Chiefs estimated that by 1997 “it would take two to four years to restore production capability to 1990 levels for items whose lines have gone cold.” And 1990 was a year of peacetime production levels after real defense spending had already been falling for four years. To make the current plan look reasonable, the administration is assuming that the United States will have two years of “strategic warning” before anything dangerous happens. Apparently future enemies are expected to be very cooperative.

Defense Secretary Cheney says,” What we have presented here is a force that we think is the absolute minimum, irreducible capability that we have to have in order to defend the United States—under certain positive assumptions.” Congress, though, sees the plan not as a minimum but as a starting point for more cuts. Yet the demands of war are always greater than anticipated even when realistic rather than “positive” assumptions are used.

For example, in 1979, the Pentagon drew up a plan for combating an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It was thought that four Army divisions (two mechanized and two airborne), three Marine brigades, and three aircraft carriers would be required. When the real situation materialized, the United States sent seven Army divisions (three armored, two mechanized, and two airborne), two marine divisions, and six aircraft carriers plus the equivalent of a dozen Air Force fight and a host of support units including armored cavalry and extra artillery—a force more than triple what was originally planned. Even this was not considered sufficient. Forces from Britain, France, and various Arab states were also called upon. Nearly half the conventional military might of the United States was needed to confront one Third World despot. The notion that the United States only needs a small “contingency army” should have been buried in the desert. But the notion persists because it serves those who want to raid the Pentagon budget. Whether the objective is to buy votes through “middle-class tax cuts” or to nationalize the health insurance industry, whenever anyone raises the question of where the money is to come from, the answer is “the peace dividend.”

Liberals see defense as the only place in a budget of over $1.5 trillion where extra money can be found for new social programs. Yet fiscal exigency cannot provide the rationale for American disarmament on the scale contemplated. The five-year plan adopted in the 1990 budget agreement cut $246.4 billion from the prior July 1990 baseline projection for 1991-1995 defense spending. Yet this represents only 3 percent of estimated total federal spending during this period. Bush’s new cuts will not make much difference to the overall budget even if doubled as the Democrats want, but they will do substantial damage to the Pentagon. The reduction in military capability is thus disproportionately large given the meager fiscal benefits. And no money will be “saved.” It will all be spent elsewhere.

Over the next five years, defense spending will fall from about 20 percent of the budget to 15 percent. In 1992 the budget deficit was larger than the entire Pentagon budget. In contrast major domestic programs are expanding at double-digit rates. It is clear that the military is neither the cause nor the solution of the government’s money problems.

By 1996 defense spending will represent less than 3.5 percent of the GNP, the lowest level since 1948. A great many American soldiers paid for this earlier bout of parsimony with their lives when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Wars are fought, at least initially, with the forces built during the prior decade. Can anyone really be so optimistic as to place such a heavy bet on there not being a war on the scale of Korea or the Gulf during the next twenty years?

The 1990’s have started out as a very violent decade. Conflicts are brewing throughout the world as new power centers and economic capabilities are created, providing the means to carry out old feuds as well as new ambitions. A failure to provide military forces commensurate with America’s global interests will cost far more than money. It will cost lives in a future war that the United States might not find as easy to win as in the Gulf.

Disarmament programs are no more viable in the 1990’s than they were in the 1920’s and 1930’s when another era of supposed peace turned out to be merely another interwar period. President Bush seems bent on following the dismal examples of the Republican administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Then, as now, in the name of peace, arms control, and fiscal restraint the military was dropped to such a low level that it was unprepared for the next set of challenges and thus invited war. Only the President’s continued support for missile defense systems shows any regard for reality.

Since the left actively promotes disarmament, it is up to conservatives who understand the lessons of history to champion the abiding value of a strong military. The failure of the conservative movement to do so bodes ill for the nation’s future security.