Hollow Arguments on Defense

Opponents of proposed reductions in the Pentagon's spending plans have increasingly settled on one frightening phrase: "hollow military." No one wants this. Thankfully, there is no danger that we will have one under any current budget-cutting plan.
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Opponents of proposed reductions in the Pentagon's spending plans have increasingly settled on one frightening phrase to sum up their arguments: the danger of a "hollow military."

No one wants a hollow military. Thankfully, there is no danger that we will have one under any current budget-cutting plan. There are four main reasons that this is the case.

First, the proposed reductions now under discussion aren't deep by historical standards. Advocates of the hollow military argument act as if President Obama and key members of Congress are planning to take a meat ax to the military budget. They are not.

The recent debt deal between the president and Congress may result in significant reductions in planned Pentagon spending, but that is by no means guaranteed. The $350 billion the administration has promised to shave from the Pentagon's ten year plan would still allow the department's budget to grow with inflation, and then some. Reductions beyond that are speculative at best.

But as Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has pointed out, even if more than $600 billion in additional cuts are triggered as a result of the failure of a specially appointed House/Senate commission to come to agreement on a substantial deficit reduction package, the Pentagon's base budget would still be $472 billion per year. That's the same level of spending the Pentagon commanded in 2007, and it is $38 billion more than it averaged during the Cold War. Winslow Wheeler of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information underscores this point in a recent essay:

I do not recall anyone declaring our national security being "imperiled" at that spending level in 2007. In fact, that level of spending for the "base" (non-war) Pentagon budget was a sixteen year high -- calculated using "constant" Defense Department dollars intended to compensate for inflation. Not exactly the result of 'hacking away.'

In short, the highest level of cuts that could emerge from the process set out in the recent budget deal will not be "disastrous" for our national security, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has suggested. It would be a reasonable readjustment after a period of record growth that has lasted for thirteen years straight and has brought military spending to its highest levels since World War II.

The second reason that we are in no danger of creating a "hollow" military is that the United States enjoys an overwhelming military advantage over any potential adversary. The U.S. spends almost as much on our military as the rest of the world combined, and more than six times what China - our alleged peer competitor of the future - spends. China is decades behind the United States in military technology, and its recently unveiled J-20 "stealth" aircraft is barely worthy of the name.

The imbalance relative to China is true more broadly. The U.S. Navy is larger than the next 13 navies in the world combined. And many of those thirteen navies are possessed by U.S. allies. The U.S. Army and Marines are the best trained and equipped fighting forces in the world. The United States has the only military in the world that truly has global reach, both because of its superior naval strength and because of its capabilities to move forces and equipment by air. Modest cuts in military spending will not dramatically change the U.S. edge in all of these areas of military power.

Third, we need more spending discipline, not more spending. The current edge notwithstanding, the hundreds of billions now being spent on defense could be invested much more efficiently and effectively. Too many current weapons programs are characterized by massive cost over-runs and significant performance problems. As Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted, the Pentagon's budget "has basically doubled in the last decade. And my own experience here is in that doubling, we 've lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades."

In a similar vein, when asked in a recent Senate hearing why costs for the F-35 fighter jet had gone through the roof, undersecretary of defense Ashton Carter noted that "in a decade of ever-increasing defense budgets... it was always possible for our managers if they -- when they ran into a technical problem or a difficult choice, to reach for more money... And so it's natural that some fat crept into all of our activities during that period."

Last but not least, we need to focus on essential missions. Proponents of the hollow military thesis assert that if we cut military spending, we'll have to shed missions, since we'll be capable of doing less. But the military should be shedding missions anyway, whether or not we have a budget crunch. Future wars of occupation like Iraq or major counterinsurgency campaigns like Afghanistan are both unlikely and inadvisable. The challenges posed by a rising China are best addressed by a mix of economic, diplomatic and military measures, and the military should not be the lead player. And we have far more nuclear weapons than we need for the only remaining mission that makes sense - preventing another nation from using them against the United States or our allies.

In addition, many of the most urgent threats we face -- such as mass scale terrorism, cyber attacks and nuclear proliferation -- cannot be effectively addressed by large scale conventional forces. All of these factors make it possible to reduce military spending to significantly lower levels than anything currently under consideration without degrading U.S. security.

The problem isn't a hollow military. It is hollow arguments in favor of a large, over-committed military that we do not need and cannot afford.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

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