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A billion here, a billion there...

The New York Times is upset because the Base Closing Commission isn't -- in the Times' view -- aggressive enough at shutting down bases:

Such reprieves hearten the communities involved, and it is easy to sympathize with local fears of base closings. Yet every such reversal diverts funds the Pentagon ought to be spending on real and urgent requirements - including the needs of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan - to the upkeep of installations the military has already concluded it can do without. The commission's actions eliminate a substantial chunk of the nearly $50 billion the Defense Department estimated it would have saved over 20 years.
Other reporting from the Times gives more specific numbers:
Principi told reporters Friday night that changes in the Pentagon blueprint approved by the commission had cut the estimated savings over 20 years to $37 billion, from $48 billion, though he called the revised number "very preliminary."
So, in other words, the Times is worked up about a difference of $11 billion... over twenty years. That is, about $500 million per year. Since the military budget (not counting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan) is about $400 billion, we're talking about 1/10th of 1 percent of the military budget. Within rounding error of 0. There may be good reasons to support more base closings... but "savings" isn't one of them.

Neither, in my view, is the Times' short-sighted, fighting-the-last-war argument:

Looking over the panel's rationale for most of these changes, we think the Pentagon had it right the first time. In the case of Portsmouth and the Groton base, a majority of the commissioners seemed to be swayed by the claim that China's naval building efforts might one day create new missions for America's current fleet of 54 underused nuclear-powered attack submarines - a costly legacy of the days when America's main enemy was an oceangoing superpower, not cave-dwelling terrorists. The Portsmouth shipyard is good at repairing submarines. The Groton base, located near the Navy's prime submarine building and repair contractor, Electric Boat, has a school for training submarine crews.

China does theoretically have the economic and technological capacity to build a large and threatening submarine fleet. But it has no obvious reason for doing so unless Washington insists on casting it as a substitute cold war enemy. The United States Navy remains the world's most powerful. The Bush administration has been handing far more dangerous leverage to Beijing by failing to narrow America's gaping budget and trade deficits, which have allowed China to buy a huge amount of the national debt.

Yes, that's all true, and the Times is right when it says that in this century we've been fighting "counterinsurgency wars" that are different than "superpower conflicts." But here's the thing: we don't know what we're going to face in ten or twenty or thirty years. To argue that China will never be our military enemy is myopic. And if/when we do need to confront them -- say, over Taiwan -- it will be awfully nice to have a submarine fleet ready... because it will be rather difficult to build one on short notice.

Ten years ago, would anybody have predicted we'd be engaged in a counterinsurgency war in Iraq? No. So why act as if you know what we're likely to face -- particularly when that prediction is based on faith in the goodwill of the government of China -- in the next ten years? (But I am amused at how the Times is preemptively Blaming America First, just in case such a confrontation with China happens.)


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