Mightiest military force in history leaves all in its wake

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The Independent US

Patriotic, applause-drenched occasions have become routine since 11 September. And what President Bush actually said the other day superficially sounded pretty routine too, as he made the easiest sales pitch imaginable in America – the Pentagon's military budget.

"We will not stop until the threat of global terrorism has been destroyed," he told cheering US servicemen at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, weighing in again against what he terms the "axis of evil", a description Europe denounces as simplistic nonsense. "The message has been made clear to the enemy. It has been made clear to the world. It is being delivered by the finest military ever assembled, the United States military."

But the facts behind the flag-waving are anything but routine. The relative quality of the US fighting man may be a matter of debate. America now accounts for 36 per cent of global defence spending – a share the historian Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, has pointed out, is the largest portion of global defence spending seen by a single country. Not even the Roman Empire could claim so much.

To put things into perspective, the $48bn (£34bn) increase in the Pentagon's fiscal 2003 budget is close to one and a half times as much as the entire annual defence spending of Britain or France. America's defence spending now exceeds the 15 next-largest military budgets combined.

And if anything this gap is growing. In recession-bound Europe the pressures are to cut, not expand, defence expenditure. Russia, traditionally the second-biggest spender, is desperate to divert resources into other areas. Many of the other big spenders, such as Taiwan and Saudi Arabia, are virtual client states of America, buying American weapons.

Meanwhile the US continues to widen its superiority in electronic warfare, in precision-guided munitions and in the unmanned drones that are becoming weapons platforms in their own right.

The imbalance between America and the rest of its allies is raising dark questions for Nato. At last weekend's Wehrkunde meeting of defence officials in Munich, two questions underlay the complaints about America's perceived unilateralism and aversion to prior consultations with its allies: can the Alliance function without America, and does America need Nato in any case?

Afghanistan illustrated the dilemma perfectly. On paper there was a "coalition"; in practice only Britain, Australia and Canada made any meaningful contribution. Washington drew two lessons from the Kosovo war: that air power can win wars; and that you do not run wars by committee.

Mr Kennedy argued that the decline of great powers – Spain, France, Britain and most recently the Soviet Union – was due to military overstretch, and the taking on of commitments that simply could not be sustained or financed. But on both scores, America looks safe.

It maintains scores of bases overseas, and thanks to 12 – soon to be 13 – aircraft carrier groups can project power almost immediately to any corner of the globe. But it is not an imperial power in the old sense, occupying great tracts of territory as did Britain or the Soviet Union. Indeed, as Afghanistan shows, America does not want overseas entanglement. Get in, win the war, then get out and let others provide the permanent peace-keepers, runs the new Bush doctrine.

And as Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, pointed out this week, "$379bn (£270bn) is a great deal of money, but it accounts only for 3.3 per cent of GDP." America's 2003 budget is in deficit but only by 1 per cent of GDP – virtuous by European standards.

All this is happening as America continues to pour tens of billions of dollars into vast, baroque weapons programmes – the new stealth F-22 fighter, the Comanche helicopter, and the uprated F/A-18E/F fighter, not to mention missile defence. These weapons are of little relevance for the crushing of the "axis of evil" whose three members, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, have a combined military budget of just $12bn.

Of course Afghanistan was a push-over, a poor, war-ruined country pummelled at will by its opponent in a military mismatch equivalent to Manchester United playing a pick-up village football team. Future foes, perhaps Iraq, will not be so swiftly overcome. China will undoubtedly become a more important military player. But for the foreseeable future the world must live with a Pax Americana, enforced by the mightiest military in history.