"Freedom isn't free." We usually hear this on occasions such as Memorial Day and Veteran's Day. It's meant to remind us of the brave American troops who put their lives on the line daily to protect our liberty and preserve our security.
But that phrase also applies to matters of money. It takes dollars and cents to field a world-class military. Equipping and training the best soldiers, and providing them with the best vehicles and weapons, is expensive. So why are we preparing to slash the amount we spend to ensure that our defense remains as capable as possible?
For make no mistake: That's the upshot of what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was talking about recently when he previewed the cuts to come under the Obama administration's latest budget request. They include:
A smaller Army and Marine corps. The Army would go from 562,000 now to 490,000. The Marines, meanwhile, would drop from 202,000 to 182,000. It would cut the number of U.S. combat brigades as well. Two would come out of Europe, where our allies would realize they can't rely on us to assist in keeping the peace. So much for defending what our troops once shed blood to achieve.
Fewer Navy ships. Under President Obama's budget, the Navy would give seven cruisers and two amphibious ships an early retirement. It also would delay or cut back on efforts to buy a variety of important vessels, including certain types of submarines and combat ships that help keep vital international waterways safe.
A shrinking Air Force. Six tactical fighter squadrons would be broken up. The pace at which the Air Force is acquiring the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter) would be slowed down. This will make the ones we do buy more expensive.
Scaled-back missile defense. Secretary Panetta didn't get specific here. He merely noted, as Heritage Foundation missile defense expert Baker Spring put it, that "not all funding was protected in this area." That sounds ominous, to say the least. The U.S. is already lagging in its efforts to mount the comprehensive, layered (land, sea and space) system we need to protect all Americans from the threat of rogue missiles aimed at our soil from nations such as Iran and North Korea.
Worse, the military is right in the crosshairs for cuts beyond those in the budget that Panetta was outlining. That budget doesn't account for automatic spending cuts due to hit under last summer's Budget Control Act. The act, Spring writes, "triggers automatic spending cuts that could amount to as much as $600 billion from the defense budget in addition to those already contained in the pending budget."
Have we forgotten what happened in the wake of post-Vietnam budget cuts? We wound up with a military that simply wasn't combat ready -- a hollow force. Asking a military that's too small to do too much means it wears out sooner. Troops and equipment get stretched too thinly.
An embarrassing debacle such as the Iranian hostage crisis that began in 1979, for one thing. Small wonder that President Reagan campaigned successfully on a promise to rebuild our military.
His vow resonated with the American people because they were tired of seeing America's prestige take a beating on the world stage.
And they were genuinely alarmed by the realization that we had become far too vulnerable.
We can't afford to take another holiday from our responsibilities.
The wholesale cuts now on the horizon for our military are irresponsible and reckless. Or do we have to learn the hard way, yet again, that "freedom isn't free"?
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, www.heritage.org.