The American Empire Is Crumbling Under Its Debt

This is part 3 of Washington DC: The Unaffordable and Unnecessary War Capital of the World.  Read part 1 and part 2.

The pivot from Republic to Empire circa 1949 remains evident even today – fully one-third of a century after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Empire was swept into the dustbin of history. As depicted in the chart below, the War Capital of the World still deploys 173,000 troops in 159 countries and maintains upwards of 750 bases in 80 countries.

Indeed, in some sense it’s as if WWII never ended. As of 2020, Washington still had large military forces in places where they had arrived 75 years ago during the final span of WWII:

  • 119 bases and nearly 34,000 troops in Germany.
  • 44 bases and 12,250 troops in Italy.
  • 25 bases and 9,275 troops in the UK.
  • 120 bases and 53,700 troops in Japan.
  • 73 bases and 26,400 troops in South Korea

As we indicated in Part 2, the traditional post-war demobilization after 1945 would have wiped clean the above slate of Empire. But it was reversed in 1948-1949 when the Soviet Union got the A-bomb and Mao won the civil war in China. Thereafter, the spread of bases, troops, alliances, interventions and Forever Wars proceeded relentlessly on the grounds that the rickety communist states domiciled in Moscow and Beijing posed an existential threat to America’s survival.

They did not. Not by a long shot. As the great Senator Robert Taft held at the time, the modest threat to homeland security presented by the war-ravaged corpus of the Soviet Union and the collectivist disaster imposed on China by Mao could have been readily handled with:

  •  An overwhelming strategic nuclear retaliatory capacity that would have deterred any possibility of nuclear attack or blackmail.
  •  A Fortress America conventional defense of the shorelines that would have been exceedingly easy to stand up, given that the Soviet Union had no Navy worth speaking of and China had devolved into industrial and agricultural anarchy owing to Mao’s catastrophic experiments with collectivization.

That Taftian framework never did change through the end of the Cold War in 1991, even as the technology of nuclear and conventional warfare evolved apace. For modest military spending  Washington could have kept its nuclear deterrent fully effective and maintained a formidable Fortress defense of the homeland without any of the apparatus of Empire at all. And after 1991, the requirement would have been even less demanding.

That truth, of course, stands in sharp contradistinction to the hoary theory of collective security, which led to the establishment of NATO in 1949 and it regional clones thereafter. Yes, there were sizeable local communist parties in Italy and France in the late 1940s, and the Labor Party in England had a reddish hue. But the now open archives of the old Soviet Union prove conclusively that Stalin had neither the wherewithal n0r intention to invade western Europe.

What military capacity the Soviet Union did resurrect after the blood-letting with Hitler’s armies was heavily defensive in character and lumbering in capabilities. So the communist threat in Europe could have been wrangled out by these nations at the polls, not on the battlefield. They did not need NATO to stop an imminent Soviet invasion.

Of course, what NATO did accomplish was to reduce dramatically the burden of defense spending in Western Europe, even as most of these nations opted for a expansive and expensive Welfare State. That is to say, the Warfare State that America didn’t need ultimately enabled the Welfare States that Europe couldn’t afford, either then or now.

Needless to say, once the Washington based-Empire of bases, alliances, collective security and relentless CIA meddling in the internal affairs of foreign countries was established, it stuck like glue – even as the facts of international life proved over and over again that the Empire wasn’t needed.

That is to say, the alleged “lessons” of the interwar period and WWII were falsely played and replayed. The aberrational rise of Hitler and Stalin did not happen because the good people of England, France and America slept through the 1920s and 1930s.

Instead, they arose from the ashes of Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in a quarrel of the old world that was none of America’s business. Yet the arrival of two million American dough-boys and massive flows of armaments and loans  from Washington enabled a vindictive peace of the victors at Versailles rather than an end to a pointless world war that would have left all the sides exhausted, bankrupt and demoralized, and their respective domestic war parties subject to massive repudiation at the polls.

As it happened, however, Wilson and Versailles did give birth to Hitler and Stalin, and the latter in the end did fortunately bring about the demise of the former at Stalingrad. That should have been the end of the matter in 1945, and, in fact, the world was almost there. After the victory parades, demobilization and normalization of civilian life proceeded apace all around the world.

Alas, the incipient War Party of military contractors and globe-trotting operatives and officialdom gestated in the heat of World War II was not about to go quietly into the good night. Instead, the Cold War was midwifed on the banks of the Potomac when President Truman fell under the spell of warhawks like Secretary James Byrnes, Dean Acheson, James Forrestal and the Dulles brothers, who were loath to go back to their mundane lives as civilian bankers, politicians or peacetime diplomats.

So, in the post-war period world communism was not really on the march and the nations of the world were not implicated in falling dominoes or gestating incipient Hitlers and Stalins. But the new proponents of Empire insisted they were just the same, and that the national security required the far-flung empire that is still with us today.

US military presence around the world

Just as the facts previously mentioned with respect to the massive deferred costs of the Forever Wars point to the absurdity of Washington’s far-flung Empire – so does the existence of a near one-million man standing army.

After all, what need would a peaceful Republic surrounded by the great Atlantic and Pacific Ocean moats have for a massive standing army when the odds of any foreign battalions and divisions reaching America are virtually non-existent. With a proper coastline garrison of missiles, attack submarines and jet fighters any invading army would become shark bait long before it saw the shores of California or New Jersey.

Yet the 462,000 active duty army soldiers at $112,000 each have an annual budget cost of $55 billion while the 506,000 army reserve forces at $32,000 each cost upwards of $16 billion. And on top of this force structure, of course, you have $77 billion for operations and maintenance, $27 billion for procurement, $22 billion for RDT&E and $4 billion for everything else.

In all, the current Army budget totals nearly $200 billion, and virtually all of that massive expenditure – nearly 3X the total defense budget of Russia – is deployed in the service of Empire, not homeland defense. It could readily be cut by 70% or $140 billion – meaning that the US Army component of a $450 billion Fortress America defense would absorb just $60 billion annually.

Likewise, the US Navy and Marine Corps spends $55 billion annually on 515,000 active duty forces and another $3.7 billion on 88,000 reserves. Yet if you look at the core requirements of a Fortress America defense posture, these forces and expenses are way over the top as well.

By core missions we refer to the Navy component of the strategic nuclear triad and the Navy’s large force of attack- and cruise-missile submarines. As it happens, here are the current manpower requirements for these key forces:

  • 14 Ohio-class Strategic Nuclear Subs: There are two crews of 155 officers and enlisted men for each boat, resulting in a direct force requirement of 4,400 and an overall total of 10,000 military personal when Admirals, overhead and woke compliance is included.
  • 50 Attack/Cruise Missile Subs: There are two crews of 132 officers and enlisted men for each boat, for a direct requirement of 13,000 and an overall total of 20,000 including Admirals and overhead.

In short, the core Navy missions of a Fortress America defense involve about 30,000 officers and enlisted men or less than 6% of the current active duty force of the Navy/Marine Corps. On the other hand, the totally unnecessary carrier battle groups, which operate exclusively in the service of Empire, have crews of 8,000 each when you count the escort ships and suites of aircraft.

So, the 11 carrier battle groups and their infrastructure require 88,000 direct military personnel and 140,000 overall when you include the usual support and overhead. Likewise, the active duty force of the Marine Corps is 175,000, and that’s entirely an instrument of invasion and occupation. It’s totally unnecessary for a homeland defense.

In short, fully 315,000 or 60% of the current active duty force of the Navy/Marine Corps functions in the service of Empire. So, if you redefine the Navy’s missions to focus on strategic nuclear deterrence and coastal defense, it is evident that more than half of the Navy’s force structure is not necessary for homeland security. Instead, it functions in the service of global power projection, policing of the sea-lanes from the Red Sea to the East China Sea and platforming for wars of invasion and occupation.

Accordingly, the current Navy/Marine Corps budget stands at about $236 billion when you include $59 billion for military personnel, $81 billion for O&M, $67 billion for procurement, $26 billion for RDT&E and $4 billion for all other. A $96 billion or 40% cut would still leave $140 billion for the core missions of a Fortress America defense.

Among the services, the $246 billion contained in the Air Force budget is considerably more heavily oriented to a Fortress America versus Empire-based national security posture than is the case with the Army and Navy. Both the Minuteman land-based leg of the strategic triad and the B-52 and B-2 bomber forces are funded in this section of the defense budget.

And while a significant fraction of the current budget for the manning, operations and procurement of conventional aircraft and missile forces is currently devoted to overseas missions, only the airlift and foreign base component of those outlays inherently function in the service of Empire.

Under a Fortress America defense, therefore, a substantial part of the conventional air-power, which includes upwards of 4,000 fixed wing and rotary aircraft, would be repurposed to homeland defense missions. Accordingly, upwards of 75% or $180 billion of the current Air Force budget would remain in place.

Finally, an especially sharp knife would be brought down upon the $181 billion component of the defense budget which is for the Pentagon and DOD-wide overhead operations. Fully $110 billion or 61% of that huge sum – again more than 2X the total military budget of Russia – is actually for the armies of civilian employees and DC/Virginia based contractors which feast upon the Warfare State. In terms of homeland security, much of these expenditures are not simply unnecessary – they are actually counter-productive. They constitute the taxpayer-funded lobby and influence-peddling force that keeps the Empire alive and fully funded on Capitol Hill.

Even then, a 38% allowance or $70 billion for the Defense Department functions, in addition to $60 billion for the Army, $140 billion for the Navy and $180 billion for the Air Force would shrink the defense component of the Warfare State to $450 billion. In current dollars of purchasing power that happens to be exactly what Eisenhower thought was more than adequate for national security when he warned of the military-industrial complex 63 years ago.

At the end of the day, the time to bring the Empire home is long overdue. The $1,3 trillion annual cost of the Warfare State is no longer even remotely affordable – and it has been wholly unnecessary for homeland security all along.

David Stockman was a two-term Congressman from Michigan. He was also the Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan. After leaving the White House, Stockman had a 20-year career on Wall Street. He’s the author of three books, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America, TRUMPED! A Nation on the Brink of Ruin… And How to Bring It Back, and the recently released Great Money Bubble: Protect Yourself From The Coming Inflation Storm. He also is founder of David Stockman’s Contra Corner and David Stockman’s Bubble Finance Trader.