Defense Needs to Play Its Part in the Deficit Debate

With certain defense spending cuts, which we have done in the past, we can provide an effective defense at an acceptable cost. And enhance our national security by having defense play its part in bringing the deficit under control.
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In Congressional testimony over the past week, several high ranking military officers, led by Army General Martin Dempsey, the nominee to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have warned about the dire national security consequences that could occur if the defense budget is cut by more than a token amount. Their comments have been reinforced by several Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee. But there are at least five reasons why the defense budget can and should be cut substantially without undo risk.

First, in real or inflation adjusted dollars, it is higher than at any time since World War II, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the height of the Reagan buildup. The Korean War peak was $485 billion in FY 1952, Vietnam $409 billion in FY 1968, and the Reagan buildup $546 billion in FY 1985. The baseline defense budget for FY2012 is $585 billion. If one adds in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the total defense budget for the upcoming fiscal year rises to about $700 billion.

Second, the baseline defense budget has risen in real terms for 13 consecutive years, which is unprecedented in American history. The Korean and Vietnam buildups lasted three years and the Reagan buildup but four. Since FY 1998, the baseline budget has risen from $360 billion to $585 billion or 63 percent. Moreover, the military snuck many items that had nothing to do with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into the $1.3 trillion war supplemental budgets, for example the F-22 and missile defense.

Third, despite the gusher of defense spending, the military in many ways is no better off than it was 13 years ago. In fact, it may be worse. Its equipment is older, and its forces are training less. This condition is the result of what Admiral Mullen, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the failure to make hard choices. As a result, the Pentagon spent $46 billion on weapon systems it had to terminate and the cost overruns on systems it is currently buying went up by $400 billion. Finally, when pressed, the military leaders themselves have identified nearly $200 billion in savings that could be achieved in the FY 2012-2016 time frame if they operated more efficiently.

Fourth, the military budget must play a role in dealing with what Admiral Mullen calls the greatest threat to our national security, the burgeoning federal deficit which now totals $14.3 trillion. Defense spending now consumes more than half of the total discretionary budget, more than 20 percent of the total budget, up from 16 percent a decade ago, and is at the same level as Social Security and Medicare, which are funded by trust funds.

Fifth, the US is not dealing with an existential threat like we did in the Cold War.

Dempsey and his fellow officers say that cutting the baseline or non-war defense budget by $100 a year billion or by $1 trillion over the next decade will jeopardize our security. Hardly. A $100 billion cut will leave the Pentagon with a baseline defense budget of $480 billion. During the Cold War, the defense budget averaged $450 billion in today's dollars. And even Secretary Gates admitted we do not need to go back to Cold War levels of defense spending.

Moreover, Eisenhower left office with a budget of $273 billion, Nixon $303 billion, and Clinton $420 billion. And the militaries they funded performed magnificently when put to the test. For example, the air and naval forces and nuclear triad purchased by Eisenhower (1953-1961) forced the Soviet Union to back down in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Similarly, the All Volunteer Total Force (active and reserve) created by the Nixon administration did the job in the first and second Gulf Wars. And the military purchased by Clinton (1992-2000) overthrew Saddam and evicted the Taliban in a matter of weeks. Finally, because of their constraints on defense, Eisenhower was able to balance the budget, and Clinton actually bequeathed a surplus to George W. Bush.

But it is not just how much you spend on defense, but how you spend it. Because there were no fiscal constraints in the last decade, the military did not have to set priorities. Therefore, when they did their most recent Quadrennial Defense Review in 2010, the Pentagon argued that the American military had to be able to go everywhere and do everything.

It is clear that the US will not again send large land armies into the Middle East. Therefore, the Obama administration can do what Eisenhower did after Korea and Nixon did after Vietnam, namely, cut the size of the active duty ground forces. Similarly, with the Cold War over for 20 years, it is no longer necessary for us to keep 150,000 troops in Europe and Asia or keep three aircraft carriers permanently deployed. Moreover, why do we still have 5,000 strategic nuclear weapons when the Air Force strategists correctly point out that 311 is all we need for deterrence? And why do we need to purchase $133 million top of the line fighters like the F-35 for all three services. Why not do what Nixon did and also simultaneously buy lower cost but effective fighters like the $43 million F/A-18/E/F for the Navy and Marines? Finally, why plow the savings from efficiencies into new programs rather than using them to cut the current level of spending.

Taking these types of reductions, which we have done in the past, can provide an effective defense at an acceptable cost. And enhance our national security by having defense play its part in bringing the deficit under control.

Lawrence J. Korb, a Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

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