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Editorial: Take care when cutting U.S. military capability

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants to slash U.S. defense spending but says in the process he hopes to reinvent the U.S. military as a smaller and more nimble force better suited to the wars of the future rather than the boots-on-the-ground wars of the past.

Hagel envisions an army reduced to its smallest size in three-quarters of a century. He is tasked with coming up with a military budget just under $500 billion, and it will take cuts and trade-offs to do that. Proposed are cuts in benefits, weapons programs and even bases.

Changes are needed and budget must be a consideration. But maintaining U.S. dominance in the air, in space, on land and at sea must be the cornerstone of new policy. After all, there is a proven payoff to a United States that is strong enough to keep the world somewhat stable, even as China and Russia put more emphasis on boosting their military prowess.

At home, New Mexico’s annual military economic impact is estimated at $9.9 billion. Bases here together employ more than 18,000 military personnel, and nearly 25,000 civilians and contractors. In addition, the New Mexico National Guard employs about 3,800 full- and part-timers.

As the Obama administration and Congress move forward, they must recognize that historically the military tends to think in terms of fighting the last war, but fast-changing technology is making it more feasible to fight from a distance and by putting fewer personnel in harm’s way. Hagel contends the U.S. can handle a smaller military if it has a technological edge and the agility to respond to world crises on short notice.

Hawks on both sides of the aisle already are lined up to shoot down Hagel’s plan, which would shrink the active-duty Army from 522,000 soldiers to about 450,000. They aren’t unreasonable in their concern that Hagel’s plans will weaken the nation’s security and standing as the world’s strongest military power.

It’s a tough balancing act. But make no mistake. There will be more wars. And those wars will be won by the countries with the best trained military and best technology. So Congress needs to stand fast in making sure we don’t cut too close to the bone when paring the fat.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.