Charles Krauthammer has it right: the number one take-away from Osama bin Laden’s killing is the “reach, power and efficiency” of the American military. The reach is global, the power is both immense and immensely precise (President Obama was able to reject the bomb-it-to-smithereens option on Osama bin Laden’s compound in favor of the special operations raid), and the application of force produced exactly the outcome intended. Even more than its efficiency, the effectiveness of this very complex operation was astonishing; many television commentators tellingly contrasted it to Operation Eagle Claw, the ill-fated Iran hostage rescue attempt.
Reach, power, and effectiveness come with a price tag, however. At $700 billion per year when the costs of wartime operations are factored in, it’s not cheap. But at less than 5 percent of gross domestic product, it’s more than affordable and at a relatively low level by recent historical standards. Over five decades, Cold War annual budgets averaged half again as much. And when measured by the other costs to American society, such as the fact that the active duty force totals about one-half of one percent of the population, the U.S. military is a bargain that cannot be beat.
This effectiveness is the product of long investment, over many administrations, but also one set of very large investments during Ronald Reagan’s two terms. That “Cold War military” allegedly remains the core of today’s force, providing the bulk of the personnel and training systems, the main weapons systems and, even more important, the esprit and morale that have proved so durable in the post-9/11 years. Those investments have paid handsome dividends, but have never been fully renewed.
Thus it would be ironic – if it weren’t so obvious and a reflection of a bipartisan failure of will – that this stunning success comes at the moment when the U.S. military faces a further downsizing and diminution of capability. Two weeks before giving the “go order” to take out Osama bin Laden, President Obama proposed his third round of defense budget reductions, taking another $400 billion from the Pentagon. It may be that Congress, whether through the House leadership or the Senate’s “Gang of Six,” not only accepts that proposal but also increases the cuts.
The Osama bin Laden raid may be a singular success, but it comes at the end of a decade’s worth of persistent effort and constant conflict amortizing investments made a generation ago. Global reach, unequalled combat power and battlefield efficiency – in other words, victory – demand a 24-7-365, all-the-time effort. We will not get what we do not pay for.