KNOXVILLE — The U.S. military is smaller but not weaker, despite a new report that says otherwise, a University of Tennessee history professor said Wednesday.
Dr. Kurt Piehler, director of UT’s Center for the Study of War and Society, said a booming U.S. economy, the end of the Cold War, and higher educational requirements for recruits have reduced military numbers.
The U.S. Defense Department cut military personnel by 750,000 in 1996 to fewer than 1.5 million. The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies recently reported that is the smallest U.S. armed force in four decades, and that the armed services is “overworked, underpaid, and underresourced.”
Still, the U.S. military advantage over other nations is greater now than at any point in history because of superior technology, training and weaponry, Piehler said.
“In past eras when the U.S. military was small, there were other military powers that clearly had equal or superior might,” Piehler said. “But today, even downsized, we still probably have the best military in terms of conventional warfare, nuclear weapons, or any category.”
Piehler said the reduced numbers are only small for the recent era, and the U.S. military remains larger than it historically has been in peacetime, despite the cuts.
“If you look at the century-wide picture, it is still a pretty large army,” Piehler said. “We had on the eve of World War I about 100,000 men in the Army. When World War II began in 1939 we had the 14th largest army, about the size of Sweden’s.”
“Historically, Americans have had small standing armies in peacetime and except for the Cold War, we’ve been reluctant to have a peacetime draft.”
Piehler said other countries’ armies also are shrinking.
“Overall world military spending is declining,” Piehler said. “Even countries with clear security problems, such as Israel, have cut overall spending on military as a portion of their economy since the 80s.”
Piehler attributed the cuts to the end of long-standing conflicts such as the Cold War and the Iran-Iraq War, and peace talks in the Middle East.
Nuclear weapons in nations such as China, India and Pakistan pose threats, but chances of a major nuclear exchange are greatly reduced by the end of the Cold War, U.S.-Soviet missile cuts, and U.S. military superiority, Piehler said.
“We have interests in the world that we will need to protect,” Piehler said. “I’m not so optimistic that I would say conventional war is a thing of the past.
“But I do think that America is safer now than it was 10 years ago, because of its technical superiority and because the threat of a major nuclear exchange is much diminished.”