Events in Libya over the past month prove what I have been saying for more than twenty years: American leaders want and need a military establishment that is large, highly capable and, ultimately very expensive. As the President noted in his speech last night it only took a month for his administration and the international community to decide to act in Libya and to launch air operations.
The rapidity with which decisions were made and a coalition organized is noteworthy. More significant is the fact that the United States was able to deploy sufficient air and naval power in that time to conduct an overwhelming air offensive. Moreover, Washington initiated this war while simultaneously maintaining a significant presence in Iraq, running a full scale ground war in Afghanistan, providing assistance to Japanese earthquake and tsunami victims, conducting antipiracy in the waters off Somalia and doing a myriad of other operations around the world.
Two generations of investments in a highly capable military is what allowed President Obama to act decisively to protect lives in Libya while simultaneously promising the American people that there would be no U.S. boots on the ground. Yes, other nations have some similar capabilities, often purchased from the United States. But without the participation of the U.S. military with its unique assets, NATO could not now be conducting a war in Libya although it is right in Europe’s back yard.
NATO’s ability to organize and conduct multi-national air operations is a result of the adoption of U.S. command and control concepts and procedures as well as due to critical U.S.-developed platforms such as the AWACS. The U.S. alone was able to bring to bear the hundreds of sea launched cruise missiles, some fired from one of four unique converted ballistic-missile submarines, which destroyed the Libyan air defense network.
Air Force B-2s, the only stealthy strategic bomber in the world, conducted thirty hour missions to deliver satellite-guided smart bombs against Libyan airfields. Rescue of the downed F-15 pilot was conducted from a U.S. amphibious warfare ship using the revolutionary MV-22 tilt rotor aircraft. Currently, specialized AC-130 and A-10 ground attack aircraft are striking ground targets in Libya. Specialized intelligence satellites and unmanned aerial systems such as the Global Hawk are monitoring the battlefield. This list goes on and on.
The reality is that since the end of the Cold War the United States has made extensive and intensive use of its military establishment. If anything, the rate at which military units were deployed increased after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Republican and Democratic Administrations alike have found ways of usefully employing the military, including during natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina and the Indonesian tsunami.
We must recognize that American foreign policy and the structure of the international system rest on the foundation of a large and very capable military. In his speech last night, President Obama declared that when it came to events in Libya “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.” This country is different not because our values are any better than those of other countries but because we alone possess the means that allow us -- and with us the rest of the world -- to do something about it.
Current arguments for cutting the defense budget need to come to grips with the reality that Republican and Democratic Administrations alike have found a large and capable military useful and even necessary. Maintaining and modernizing such a military is an expensive proposition. We have a tendency of making it more expensive than is necessary through bad practices such as keeping an excessively large public sector defense industrial base and not pricing military benefits appropriately. Nevertheless, as events around the world have demonstrated of late, this is a necessary investment, one we and the world cannot avoid. So, if we like and use the military we should be willing to pay for it.