When is the next 9/11?
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel doesn't know, and President Barack Obama doesn't know either.
No one knows.
But they want to take the United States military back not to pre-9/11 threat levels but to pre-Pearl Harbor threat levels.
Incredibly, in trying to explain Monday how his plans will provide a more nimble military, Hagel said the nation will no longer be sized to conduct large and protracted ground wars as have been fought in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 11 years.
The plans would shrink the Army from a wartime peak of 570,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000, would lower the Marine Corps from 190,000 to 182,000, and would eliminate programs such as the A-10 Warthog attack planes and U-2 surveillance planes. It also would drop the National Guard from 355,000 to 335,000 members and the Army Reserve from 205,000 to 195,000.
Serious discussions can be had about whether we should have fought the aforementioned wars and perhaps how they were fought, but it seems clear it was important to have had that force available.
Still, Hagel offered this: "We are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted."
If that's true, why is this a good time to cut our military manpower?
It would be easy to make the case if the world were more peaceful, if those who seek destruction of the U.S. no longer did, and if a way were found to maintain the same security at a much lower cost. But that's not the case.
Anyone who knows anything about military budget outlays over the past 50 years can cite their favorite instance of excess -- the Navy's purchase of two ashtrays for $1,800 in 1985, for instance -- so it would be impossible to say there can't be some common-sense, cost-saving measures. And, in fact, Hagel's plans detailed some.
The 2015 defense budget, for example, suggests smaller military pay raises, a slowdown in the growth of tax-free housing allowances, a requirement that retirees and some families of active-duty service members pay a little more in health insurance deductibles and co-pays, and a one-year freeze on pay for top military brass.
The average Joe can look at those trims and relate.
What the average person cannot fathom is just exactly why this downsizing is wise at this moment in history. Hagel suggested in order to be ready for a 2014 world it is appropriate to be at 1940 strength.
To face a world with "new technologies, new centers of power and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances more threatening to the United States," he said, troop strength needs to decrease as a trade-off for building up "technological superiority" and priorities such as Special Operation Forces and "cyber resources."
Others saw more cynical reasons for the cuts, including the fact entitlement programs are squeezing more money from the overall budget, a need to further fund Obamacare and the administration's perceived desire for unilateral disarmament.
"[Former U.S. Middle East allies are] absolutely convinced," former Vice President Dick Cheney, always the bomb thrower, said on Fox's "Hannity," "that they can no longer trust the United States to keep its commitments."
"What we're trying to do," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, "is solve our financial problems on the backs of our military, and that can't be done."
Most hurtful, though, is the proposed loss of thousands of military jobs while the civilian economy remains weak.
Retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the United States and the former Tennessee Army National Guard adjutant general, knows a little something about that.
"We are disappointed, but hardly surprised [at the cuts]," he told Defense News, adding he was disappointed at Hagel's description that Guard units only "complement active forces."
"For the last 12-plus years," he said, "Army and Air National Guard units have been nothing less than integral to the Army and Air Force accomplishing their missions around the globe. Service and Pentagon leaders have said as much countless times."
Hargett, contacted in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, said Tennessee stands to lose more Guard members than most states because it has the seventh largest contingent in the country. Indeed, he said, if there is a return to the across-the-board congressional budget cuts known as sequestration that were partially suspended for the 2014 and 2015 budgets, the state could lose "the equivalent of a battalion (approximately 300-500)."
"Everybody will lose," he said. "Some will lose a little bit more than others."
And the country may lose a lot.