The battle of the budget has been fully joined by the ideologues of the Democrats and Republicans this week. On the right, we have Monday's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Arthur Brooks, Edwin Feulner and the redoubtable William Kristol in which they argue that the defense budget must not pay for the deficit. The key quote: "Defense spending has increased at a much lower rate than domestic spending in recent years and is not the cause of soaring deficits." Now, on the left, we bring you the views of William Hartung of the New America Foundation who has argued for most of the year in various op-eds and reports that America must cut the defense budget. He has aimed high, for almost $1 trillion in cuts. We'll see if this debate spreads beyond the Beltway and into the conversations of decent people over the dinner table and in bars.
With federal deficits projected to run into the trillions of dollars over the next decade, it is time to take a hard look at the role that savings in Pentagon spending can play in any long-term deficit reduction plan.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has acknowledged that the spigot is now closing on the kinds of hefty Pentagon spending increases that have been taken for granted since 2001. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described the deficit as our greatest national security threat. Yet neither Secretary Gates nor Admiral Mullen has offered up a plan to reduce the Pentagon’s top line budget as a contribution towards deficit reduction. Reduce, but reduce elsewhere, say Gates and Mullen.
But cutting the deficit without reducing Pentagon spending is unrealistic from both a budgetary and a strategic perspective.
On the budgetary front, projected military expenditures of well over $700 billion for FY2011 rival Social Security as the largest single item in the federal budget. And roughly two-thirds of the rapid increase in discretionary spending since 2001 is attributable to the military budget. Furthermore, with the bulk of current spending going to the Pentagon’s base budget rather than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is plenty of room to cut without diminishing the resources available to troops in the field.
As for the strategic front, a recent report by the Sustainable Defense Task Force (of which the author is a member) has demonstrated that savings of nearly $1 trillion in Pentagon spending can be achieved over the next decade without diminishing our security.
To some degree, the numbers tell the story. U.S. military spending is nearly as large as the defense budgets of the rest of the world combined, and it is three and one-half times as large as the combined budgets of any potential adversaries (including Russia and China). While some critics have suggested that U.S. spending should increase because it is a lower share of GDP than it was during past conflicts, this is the wrong measure. Military spending should be assessed relative to possible enemies, not relative to some arbitrary share of GDP. And on this score current U.S. spending is more than enough.
The data on relative expenditures is reinforced by a realistic assessment of what is needed to address the most likely threats facing the country. As President Eisenhower noted, there is no such thing as perfect security. The role of strategy is to make choices, not to treat all possible security challenges as being of equal concern.
Bearing that in mind, it is clear that conventional military forces are of little value in confronting major challenges such as combating nuclear proliferation, preventing mass casualty terrorism, or restoring a vibrant economy – the bedrock of our strength as a nation. That doesn’t mean they should be neglected, but it does mean that reductions can be made without undermining our fundamental security as a nation.
For example, the 150,000 U.S. military personnel now allocated for service in Europe and Asia can be reduced by 50,000 without reducing our ability to provide reassurance to our allies in these regions, and might even encourage them to bear a greater share of the burden for their own defense. A reduction in the size of the U.S. Navy could be carried out without undercutting basic capabilities such as helping to preserve freedom of the seas. This is particularly true in light of Secretary Gates’ observation that the U.S. Navy is currently larger than the next 13 navies in the world combined, 11 of which belong to U.S. allies.
Elimination of unnecessary weapons systems like the MV-22 Osprey and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle would also save billions. And a rethinking of the advisability of fighting future wars of occupation like the conflict in Iraq would pave the way for a roll back of recent increases in the size of the Army and Marines, a total of about 92,000 personnel. These reductions could be phased in as conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan permit.
These facts should be taken into account as the Pentagon assembles its FY2012 budget. And President Obama’s deficit reduction commission, which is scheduled to report in December, should move the process forward by recommending that significant cuts in Pentagon spending be included as part of any serious deficit reduction package.
William D. Hartung is director of the arms and security initiative at the New America Foundation and a co-author of "Debt, Deficits and Defense" by the Sustainable Defense Task Force.