Debt: Our Greatest National Security Threat?
Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, generated quite the buzz with his proclamation last week that, “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”
Mullen explained that “ability for our country to resource our military” will be “directly proportional” to the strength of the economy. Further, he noted that projections have the payments on interest on the national debt to reach $600 billion by 2012 — an amount equal to the entire Pentagon budget.
That the comments took off over the weekend demonstrates the power of repetition: Mullen and his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have been saying exactly the same thing for weeks. Their message is that the Pentagon has to do its part to rein in bloated spending, particularly in prioritizing for longer term needs. Most notably, they’ve been arguing for a need to shift away from expensive contractor support to organic capability.
As I note in my New Atlanticist essay, “The Most Significant Threat to NATO,” the same resource constraints are putting serious strains on the transatlantic relationship. with the United States already footing three-quarters of the defense spending bill, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has warned there is a very real danger that the European forces would face “an extreme technology gap” and we could therefore “end up with a situation where the Americans find the Transatlantic relationship less relevant.”
Implicit in all this, however, is that our defense budget and “our national security” are significantly overlapping.
Certainly, the enormous capabilities we can bring to bear makes a traditional military attack on American soil much less likely. But, at the same time, it’s not at all clear that we’ll be significantly less safe if we fail to transform Afghanistan into Sweden over the coming years. Or even if we fail to replace our best-in-the-world fighter airplane with one that’s much better.