WASHINGTON - Beer, pizza and defense. Americans spend more on each of these than anyone else. So what? These facts say nothing about how happy, healthy or safe we are. They are meaningless without context.
Perhaps Americans could do with fewer jumbo slices and more gym memberships. But when it comes to defense spending, America needs to spend more, not less.
For starters, comparing our defense spending to that of other nations doesn’t make much sense.
Walmart has more than 2 million employees. The average small business has fewer than 100. Does that mean Walmart’s payroll is out of whack? Of course not.
The U.S. is a global power, with global responsibilities and global economic interests to defend. We need a defense budget commensurate with those responsibilities and interests, not with other nations’ lesser global posture.
Abandoning our responsibilities and interests is not a viable option. Europe can’t defend Europe without us - that’s why we have NATO. President Barack Obama tried walking away from the Middle East - only to see ISIS and Iran start to take over. Does anyone think turning Asia over to China is a good idea?
No, the U.S. neither can nor should be the world’s policeman. Nor is it our responsibility to ensure all these places are the land of milk and honey.
But we do need to worry about big, destabilizing problems - things like wars and nuclear attack, that can spread untold misery around the world, to us and our friends included.
Nor should a particular foreign policy dictate the size of the Pentagon’s budget.
The wisdom of staying in Afghanistan or hunting down terrorists in Africa can be debated. Still, in the end, the missions don’t tell you how big a military is required.
That would be like picking the size of a fire department based on which fires you want to fight. A fire department has to be big enough to protect the community. The armed forces need to be big enough to defend the U.S. and its vital interests.
And, for sure, defense spending ought to be efficient and efficacious. That’s a standard that should apply across all of our government. Our elected officials and public servants should be good stewards for the American taxpayer - period.
Adding all that context together, where are we on defense spending? The answer is: We are short of where we need to be.
Five years ago, my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation developed the Index of US Military Strength.
Our analysts established an objective, nonpartisan measure of defense sufficiency that graded how much military power America actually has in terms of manpower, readiness and weaponry; what the armed forces are required to do; and what the world was like - the actual threats that must be addressed.
Our latest analysis, published this month, concludes that, after years of over-use and under-funding, the U.S. military is only marginally prepared to fight and win in a two-conflict scenario (the standard benchmark for a global power).
Scrimping on training has resulted in low readiness levels.
Air Force pilots, for example, fly only a fraction of the training hours they used to. The force isn’t big enough.
The Navy, for instance, was unable - for the first time in a long time - to send an aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean to cover the Middle East.
And the force isn’t modernizing fast enough. Marines are still driving combat vehicles built in 1972 - vehicles older than their drivers’ parents.
America’s competitors can count. They see that our armed forces are too small and ill-prepared to take on two regional powers simultaneously. They know that if America doesn’t rebuild soon, they can soon match us in their part of the world.
That’s a dangerous situation - with consequences far more costly than paying for an adequate national defense.
A 25-year Army veteran, James Jay Carafano is Vice President for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank located on Capitol Hill. A graduate of West Point, he holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from Georgetown University. Readers may write him at Heritage, 214 Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002-4999.