Veterans weigh in: $16 trillion debt endangers security

What do American military veterans believe is the greatest threat to our nation’s security? If you think the answer is China, the Iranian nuclear threat, or foreign terrorist groups, guess again: Nearly three-quarters of veterans we surveyed last month cite economic weakness (42 percent) and the national debt (30 percent) as the top threats to national security.

As policymakers in Washington wrestle with historic budget deficits — and candidates hit the stump with plans to jumpstart the economy — they should keep these results in mind.

Veterans are often assumed to be a monolith, focused narrowly on VA health and retirement benefits. They’re not. Our military and veterans — having sworn an oath to defend the Constitution — have a keen eye towards all threats to our nation’s future, foreign and domestic. They know that our nation’s military might and inherent freedoms are inextricably tied to our economic health.

Next week, the national debt will surpass $16 trillion — a historic high and new low. Each day it grows by roughly $3.5 billion, and in a matter of years, interest payments on our debt will exceed defense outlays. Worse yet, at 104 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, the debt is now larger than the American economy; and this year marks the fourth consecutive year with a $1 trillion budget shortfall. We’re underwater, yet there seems to be no relief in sight, with deficits forecast as far as the eye can see.

For the United States, which secures American and Western interests around the globe, the $16 trillion debt — combined with scant economic growth — is a recipe for compromised security. As our leaders seek to stanch the flow of deficit spending and mounting interest payments on the debt, the 19 percent of our budget that pays for our defense is increasingly a top target.

Why? Because it’s easier to cut back on military priorities than muster the courage to reform entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — programs that together command a much larger portion of the federal budget (62 percent) and are the overwhelming drivers of current and future debt. Those programs — especially Medicare — also constitute a political maze of presidential proportions, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks.

As a result, it’s our military strength that’s on the chopping block. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned months ago about the dangers of taking a “meat ax” to the military budget, but nonetheless — in January of next year — the first round of $500 billion in defense cuts is slated to take effect under “sequestration” — Washington-speak for across-the-board cuts.

This is not to say defense spending should be sacrosanct. Just the opposite: the defense budget is ripe for reform, especially as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. Veterans especially know the Pentagon suffers from too many bloated and outdated programs and a wasteful, inefficient procurement process. Unfortunately, we’re not getting the smart, sensible budget reform that the times demand.