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Commentary: What happened to the peace dividend?

By John B. Quigley The numbers make one's head spin. The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier has been under construction since 2005. It is to be operational by 2019. Price tag: $13 billion.

By John B. Quigley

The numbers make one's head spin.

The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier has been under construction since 2005. It is to be operational by 2019. Price tag: $13 billion.

The Navy wants two more similarly sized ships and is forecasting a total cost of $43 billion. But cost overruns are all-too-common with such projects, so where the final tab will wind up is anyone's guess. The USS Ford will be, no doubt, a very nice ship, capable of launching aircraft far more efficiently than older members of the fleet. But still, $13 billion for one boat?

The Air Force, meanwhile, is enamored with stealth fighter jets. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, underway for years, is now expected to produce about 2,457 jets for the Air Force at a cost of nearly $400 billion, which, at double the original budget, will make it the most expensive weapons system in world history.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), no foe of the Pentagon, has called the F-35 program "a scandal and a tragedy" because of production delays and cost overruns.

These Navy and Air Force projects are small potatoes, however, compared with the Pentagon's plans to spruce up our nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Refurbishing our nuclear weaponry is projected to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

One might think that, with the Cold War a distant memory, taxpayers would not have to go into debt for these extravagant purchases.

The Cold War's end was expected to produce a so-called peace dividend that would allow us to devote our hard-earned cash to things that make life better, like bridges that do not collapse and water systems that deliver a liquid one can actually drink.

But President Obama's defense budget request for fiscal year 2017 reads like something out of the Cold War-era thriller The Hunt for Red October.

It states: "We are countering Russia's aggressive policies through investments in a broad range of capabilities. The FY 2017 budget request will allow us to modify and expand air defense systems, develop new unmanned systems, design a new long-range bomber and a new long-range stand-off cruise missile, and modernize our nuclear arsenal."

I well recall that mindset. I was part of President Dwight Eisenhower's cultural exchange with Russia. I was sent to a university in Moscow that was within walking distance of the Kremlin. I knew there was a missile somewhere deep in the ground in Nebraska or North Dakota with my name on it, waiting to launch if some crisis developed.

The strategy was called mutual assured destruction, or MAD. Neither side would attack since it would, in turn, be obliterated.

Now we are running an arms race with no competitors. Russia spends less on its military than does Saudi Arabia. China spends far less than we do. Our present military adversaries are rag-tag operations against whom our high-tech ships and aircraft are the wrong weapons.

Our military bases are another relic. The idea was to have troops positioned to respond to Soviet military moves. But we still have 180 bases abroad at an annual cost of $150 billion.

We have the potential via smart diplomacy to resolve many of the situations that weapons alone cannot resolve.

In Syria, we could try to bring the contending parties together rather than backing one side, a side that includes terrorist groups. We may not like Syria's government, but neither side seems able to prevail, so our current policy only perpetuates the killing.

Our massive funding of Israel generates anti-U.S. resentment that yields attacks against us and our allies. Pulling that funding and forcing Israel out of Palestinian territory could protect us more than fancy military hardware.

John B. Quigley is distinguished professor of law at Ohio State University.