By Brigadier General Stephen Boone

The Charlotte Observer

April 24, 2012

From Retired Brigadier General Stephen Boone, an Army doctor who commanded the 818th Hospital Center including all medical reserve units in the southeast United States. Boone lives in Raleigh.

After 10 years of war and the worst economy in memory, it’s no surprise many Americans welcome the idea of shrinking defense budgets and a smaller, less active military.

The trillion dollar defense cuts enacted by Congress are likely to disappoint, however. They won’t improve the economy; analysts predict they’ll destroy a million jobs and potentially drag us back into recession. They won’t lessen conflict around the globe; as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said, a weaker America only “invites aggression” against the U.S. and its allies.

And for those who expect a more humane world to result, a particularly painful casualty of the cuts will almost certainly be America’s proud tradition of military humanitarian assistance – work that reinforces diplomacy and reminds the world that America is good as well as strong, a cornerstone of U.S. power since the Berlin Airlift opened the Cold War.

We’ve shown it from Haiti, where American special forces built a new air traffic control system overnight so aid could flow after the 2010 earthquake, to New Orleans, where army helicopters plucked Katrina survivors from rooftops and the USNS Comfort hospital ship treated nearly 2,000 patients.

The humanitarian mission goes beyond simple disaster relief. When our navy rescued Iranian civilians from pirates in the Strait of Hormuz, it opened new channels of dialogue with one of our most dangerous foes. Just weeks ago, Seal Team Six used skills honed on missionslike the bin Laden raid to free a U.S. aid worker from Somali kidnappers.

In Syria today, American drones patrol the skies gathering intelligence and documenting atrocities – evidence that may be critical to international efforts to defuse that crisis or hold the Syrian dictator accountable.

Tight budgets will immediately put these missions at risk. In his final policy speech, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned “a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things.”

The administration’s proposed new defense strategy attempts to square the problem of shrinking budgets in an ever more dangerous world by building a “leaner, nimbler” force – one that leverages air and naval power to preserve our ability to reach any hotspot around the globe while saving money with targeted, strategic cuts to obsolete systems and large standing armies no longer needed as we pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Such an approach may allow us to improve the budget situation while preserving the core of America’s modern military strength, including high-tech systems and long-reach capabilities needed for effective humanitarian aid. But Secretary Panetta has been clear – this strategy can weather the $487 billion in cuts the administration has already enacted, but cannot survive the additional $500 billion defense “sequestration” cuts set to begin on January 2, 2013.

The resulting force wouldn’t be “leaner” – it would be anorexic.

Humanitarian missions – like our other military operations – serve moral and national security purposes. But we simply won’t be able to keep them up unless Congress puts automatic sequestration aside andfocuses on rational budget cuts that keep America in the position to lead when duty – humanitarian or otherwise – calls.