Security Isn’t Cheap

Nov. 1, 2010

Speaking about the relationship between military might and economic strength in 1951, President Eisenhower said, “We must not destroy from within what we are trying to defend from without.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this year added an interpretation. Said Gates of Eisenhower, “This fueled his passionate belief that the US should spend as much as necessary on national defense—but not one penny more.”

Calls to cut the Pentagon’s budget have been rising in intensity. Critics claiming defense spending is injurious to the US economy have repeatedly taken these two quotes out of context.

No one favors wasteful military spending, but the nation’s current financial situation is now making it likely DOD will receive less than is necessary for national defense. This is not what Eisenhower had in mind, as his 1951 speech was a call to balance military and economic strength.

Today, the Pentagon budget represents a shrinking portion of federal spending and a modest part of the massive US economy. Even including war costs, military spending today represents the same share of the national economy as in 1992. Still, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concedes the pressure to cut military spending will “continue to grow.”

The federal budget is seriously out of balance. For the past decade, tax cuts have overlapped with post-9/11 security demands, two wars, and ever-increasing entitlement spending, primarily on Social Security and Medicare. With the economy struggling, national debt will likely climb sharply as the nation’s entitlement addiction reaches full bloom in the coming decades. Just in 2012, Mullen noted, interest on the debt will total $600 billion, and “that’s one year’s worth of defense budget.”

“This wave of debt” will continue to roll over from year to year, Mullen warned. If not brought under control, the Pentagon budget will have to be cut simply to service the debt.

“I think that we have to both meet the national security requirements and be very clear [about the] fiscal resources to meet the requirements, or we’ll have to stop doing something,” Mullen added later. “On the other hand, we’re about four percent of the gross domestic product for the country so we are by no means going to solve this problem by ourselves.”

Still, ill-advised calls to cut the Pentagon budget follow as predictably as the tides. Without credible analysis of strategy or requirements, critics are once again declaring defense spending to be out of control.

Case in point: Fifty-seven members of Congress on Oct. 12 sent a letter to President Obama’s fiscal responsibility commission, which is charged with delivering a deficit reduction plan Dec. 1. “Cutting the military budget must be part of any viable proposal” to reduce the deficit, reads the letter initiated by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “We hope … a consensus will be reached that significant cuts are necessary and can be made in a way that will not endanger national security. We strongly believe this to be the case.”

Frank, Paul, and Wyden were also sponsors of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, a panel that recently advocated nearly a trillion dollars in cuts to the defense budget. The panel’s report is enlightening, because it previews some likely attacks and came with a similar assurance that spending can be reduced without damaging US security.

According to whom

The task force included longtime defense critics such as Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives, Lawrence J. Korb of the Center for American Progress, and Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information.

Their cuts would include:

  • Eliminating the bomber leg of the nuclear triad;
    • Removing 200,000 personnel from the military;
        Reducing the number of troops stationed overseas by a third;
          Retiring three more Air Force fighter wings;
            Terminating the V-22 Osprey;
              Ending the Air Force variant of the F-35;
                Cutting the Navy fleet from 287 ships to 230;
                  Slashing DOD research and development funding by $5 billion per year;
                    Delaying by five years the KC-X tanker program.

                  The Pentagon, on the other hand, has a sophisticated requirements process, and even a cursory look at today’s force shows a military worn down by nine years of war. Today’s overstretched force emerged from a decade of sharp drawdowns after the Cold War. The overambitious “peace dividend” left the military in need of a massive recapitalization program even before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq created further wear and tear on vital equipment.

                  There are certainly ways to reduce defense spending, but the military cannot realistically be asked to do what it does today with less money.

                  The Air Force has been underfunded for years, recently gave up on an attempt to save money by cutting end strength, then sent some 250 fighter aircraft to an early retirement to free up modernization dollars. USAF’s aircraft fleet is its oldest ever, several major recapitalizing efforts are long overdue, and there are entire categories of airmen who spend more time deployed than at their home bases.

                  Mullen said he hopes DOD is able to avoid “massive cuts” which he says “would be dangerous now, given the national security requirements that we have.”

                  The task force touted by Frank, Paul, and Wyden says, “The savings options we have outlined promise to provide immediate fiscal relief.” Proposed cuts “would help to bring the goal of meaningful deficit reduction within reach.”

                  In reality, the Pentagon budget needs to flow from national strategy and should not be guided by the arbitrary whims of cost cutters. A well-trained, well-equipped, professional military is not cheap. If the nation wants it to cost less, the nation will probably have to ask it to do less.