America's global commitments, from Japan to Germany, from NATO to Afghanistan, from EUCOM to AFRICOM, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf, from USPACOM in Honolulu to CENTCOM in Tampa, Fla., all are being reassessed — at home and abroad.
Can a superpower whose infrastructure is rapidly decaying to Third-World standards in many sectors and in need of a $1 trillion facelift afford to be the free world's gendarme, spending more on defense than the rest of the world put together?
From a no-win Afghan war, where Pakistan, a "major non-NATO ally," would be happy to see a reformed Taliban regime rule the tribal roost (sans al-Qaida); to the perceived need for some 700 U.S. military bases and outposts at home and abroad; to the presence of 75,000 troops in Germany, a country that is cutting defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product; to the very purpose of NATO if many of the allies see little value in collective defense — everything is bound to be part of an agonizing reappraisal.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stunned his Navy League audience when he made clear carrier strike groups (there are 11) and $13.2 billion for amphibious assault craft were wasting assets now that the United States has lost its monopoly in precision-guided munitions.
All these questions shouldn't lead people to conclude the United States can afford to be isolationist.
Clearly U.S. military presence is required in Japan, a major power that worries about being left in the lurch with big brother China, well on its way to superpowerdom in Asia.
The United States is also needed in South Korea as a deterrent, or tripwire to the dangerous antics of dictator Kim Jong Il, clearly a cruel despot who could be tempted to end it all by launching a nuclear missile or bomb on Seoul in a final "Gotterdammerung."
The Persian Gulf is critically important to Western security and an over-the-horizon U.S. carrier task force may not deter Iran but it would go a long way to reassuring our Gulf friends, as it did throughout the Cold War.
A Muslim fanatic with a British passport, Anjem Choudary, said Sunday on Fareed Zakaria's "GPS" program on CNN that in truly free elections in most Muslim countries today Osama bin Laden would probably win.
This is one of the reasons most Gulf leaders would welcome U.S. bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities as well as the capture and execution of bin Laden.
The F-35 will be the last manned fighter built by the United States for the United States and many of its friends and allies. Military commitments in the 21st century will be less visible and less expensive.
Remote-controlled aircraft, beginning with the Predator and the Rapier, are the first entrants in robotic wars of the future.
Pilot and co-pilot sit in a mock cockpit in Nevada and fly drones over Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal border areas and press a button, instead of squeezing a trigger, as they see via satellite relay hostile guerrillas with AK-47s slung over their shoulder. Soon unmanned bombers and fighter-bombers will succeed many of today's manned military aircraft.
Tomorrow's robotic wars are already in the planning stages. But the United States is still spending countless billions on legacy systems.
It is now hard to imagine the United States involved in tank warfare thousands of miles from home base, as it was briefly in Iraq in February 1991. Yet we still have to pay for the maintenance of almost 9,000 tanks.
Can the United States afford $6 billion destroyers that can't operate in shallow coastal waters? More useful would be World War II-type PT boats — but with devastating firepower.
All manner of unmanned combat air vehicles are now on everything from drawing board to production line to flight line.
Last week, the British defense contractor BAE Systems unveiled Tiranis. Named after the Celtic god of thunder, the Tiranis takes unmanned fighting aircraft to a new level of robotic warfare.
It can fly anywhere in the world guided and operated by satellite to spy, drop precision-guided bombs or missiles — and even fight back like a fighter-bomber if attacked by another drone or by a manned aircraft.
Tiranis is leading the charge into robotic warfare.
Next to fly will be Boeing's Phantom Eye that can operate for four days at 66,000 feet.
Already available are tiny UCAVs that can be carried as part of a soldier's backpack and used for an overhead view of an enemy attack. Some are the size of a large beetle that fly into an enemy headquarters, settle on a wall and transmit conversations. Flocks of bird-sized micro air vehicles can swarm all over a target.
Already, UCAVs are a $5 billion business that is grounding pilots.
Underwater unmanned vehicles are already in the water. Autonomous perimeter security mobile robots are also deployed.
How long before terrorists get their hands on the same technology?
The Terrafugia (Latin for escape from land) company, Bloomberg Businessweek reported, produced a car-cum-aircraft, the flying automobile many fantasize about when stuck in barely moving commuter traffic.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently gave the car-plane an exemption so it can carry air bags and other car safety features. This puts the "Transition" at 1,430 pounds, or half as much as a Mini Cooper, that can be ordered for $194,000 (delivery by the end of 2011).
The Transition goes from car to plane or vice versa in about the time it takes to lower the top on a convertible, says Carl Dietrich, the co-founder of Terrafugia in Woburn, Mass. The company plans to produce 300 to 400 a year. It must takeoff and land at an airport and can fly 460 miles at a speed of 110 mph. On the ground, wings folded alongside, it can easily cruise at 60 mph.
The latest Quadrennial Defense Review looks ahead about five years, instead of 20 years as was the original intent, say U.S. House of Representatives and Senate lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, who are focused on defense issues.
Gates is looking for savings in the $100 billion range in a $861 billion defense budget, or 22 percent of the total federal budget, which propels the deficit to a record $1.6 trillion in 2010.
The deepest and longest recession since World War II is bound to produce an agonizing reappraisal of America's global commitments.
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