Generals leery of their ranks being trimmed, oh my!

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Interesting story in this morning’s New York Times about the military brass’ concerns with Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ plan to trim their nearly-1,000-strong ranks by, ahem, 50 slots. While reporters Ginger Thompson and Thom Shanker quote only retired generals on the record, their views are shared by active duty officers as well. It’s amazing that a proposal to cut by half the increase in generals since 9/11 is generating any ire at all. Generals are the tip of the military-spending iceberg, and Gates’ modest goal is only the first step in a necessary down payment if the nation is ever going to recalibrate its military spending to the genuine threats the nation faces.

Defense spending in 2008 reached $700 billion, just about double what we spent in 1998. The share unrelated to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was $503 billion, 41 percent more than in 1998, according to a report from the Project on Defense Alternatives. It has ebbed a little since then, but is likely to reach a record high in 2011.

It is now clear that U.S. military spending — not including money for the wars — is stabilizing at levels well above the $423 billion (in 2010 dollars) we spent annually on the Pentagon from 1954 to 2001. Go ahead — read that sentence again: we are spending much more on defense now, against a small but driven band of Islamic zealots, and a handful of potential but smaller foes — than we did against the might (or so we were told at the time) of Moscow and its Warsaw Pact “allies” (or so we were told at the time).

I can remember endless debates with military graybeards back in the 1980s, arguing how much money we would save on defense spending if the Soviet Union disappeared. No one ever suggested we would be spending more.