01/23/2008 - 22:00

How much defense spending is enough?

Gordon Adams

Gordon Adams

A professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service, Adams also serves as a distinguished fellow at the...

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In 2008, the United States will spend more than $600 billion on defense, including funding for the Iraq War. If Congress adds the remainder of what President George W. Bush has requested for Iraq and Afghanistan, spending will top $700 billion.

In constant dollars, the 2008 U.S. defense budget is higher than any year since World War II, and the United States now spends more on defense than everyone else in the world combined. But no matter how much we spend, it doesn't seem to be enough. The army claims it will never be able to reset the equipment damaged in Iraq, because there's not "enough" money. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argues that the military deserves 4 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is about to send Congress a budget request approaching that goal.

On the campaign trail, the candidates agree. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wants to add another 100,000 troops to the military and is demanding an additional $30 billion to $40 billion a year in defense spending. Arizona Sen. John McCain wants to nearly double the size of the marines and army, proposing that the military's share of the GDP be increased to pay for it. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee would top them both, as he's proposing to spend 6 percent of the GDP on defense (or more than $800 billion a year, based on today's GDP). New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama haven't provided defense figures, but they fully endorse the current plan to add 92,500 troops to U.S. ground forces. (Read my May 2007 column, "The Problem with Expanding the U.S. Military," to see why I think such an expansion is unjustified.)

Beltway pundits have joined the throng. Analysts from the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution, neither a stridently conservative think tank, insist we must continue the spending pace, even as we adapt our forces for peacekeeping and counterinsurgency missions. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is eager for more as well. In the January 28 Weekly Standard, Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt complain that the defense "deficit" created by the Clinton administration hasn't been overcome and that today's "relatively modest" defense budgets won't allow the forces to complete all the necessary tasks to keep the nation safe. Of course, this is revisionist history; the manpower and procurement cuts of the 1990s were largely enacted by the George H. W. Bush administration.

For many years, we've believed that, as Donnelly and Schmitt put it, "the burden of keeping the peace in the world remains largely in America's hands." But as long as we remain entranced by such assertions, the clamor that we don't spend "enough" on defense will lead to ever-higher defense budgets, and every new spending ceiling will become the floor for the next assertion that it's still not "enough."

The reality is we're overspending on the military and underspending on diplomacy and foreign assistance. Yes, the military is adaptable, capable, and flexible, but the military is now encroaching on territory that belongs to our diplomats and assistance and development programs. And while many analysts and political commentators believe that U.S. leadership in the world can be measured by an enormous defense budget, projecting military power as the leading edge of our international engagement has brought about a rising hostility to U.S. foreign and security policy.

In addition, the current stress on the military is due to the Iraq War. Even the Bush administration is planning a troop build-down in Iraq and looking toward further reductions in the future. The Democratic candidates all favor a build-down, and some call for complete withdrawal within a year. While it'll be costly to redeploy and reset the forces, this expense doesn't approach the operating costs in Iraq. Plus, the reset is mostly about equipment, not people. With a serious reduction or withdrawal from Iraq, the stress on the forces disappears.

Moreover, the advocates of a larger military provide little strategic justification for a troop increase. Donnelly and Schmitt offer only the lame, oft-repeated sentiment that the United States "keeps the global peace." But that's an assertion, not a strategic vision, which is what should determine the size of our forces. And aside from the tsunami, the Iraq War has diminished the world's appetite for a United States that assumes the "global cop" role. Other analysts still use the idea of preemption as justification for a larger U.S. military--for instance, a recent Stanley Foundation paper by Michael O'Hanlon and Frederick Kagan offers the possibility of U.S. military intervention in Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and China. In reality, given the outcome of the Iraq War, such invasions would be greeted by violent internal opposition and international condemnation.. Not to mention that attacking large, geographically imposing countries such as China and Pakistan would require far more military strength than any of the advocates of a larger military have ever considered. Basing defense budgets on such invasions is fantasy.

On the other hand, if our strategic vision is internationally sanctioned stabilization missions with a conventional military force serving as a support tool for U.S. diplomacy, assistance, and development, there may be room to consider a smaller force. Analysts at the Center for American Progress have offered a similar, somewhat different vision and mission for our armed forces, but somehow, they still endorse a larger military.

It seems as though neither defense analysts nor the candidates want to put forward an alternative strategic vision that feature a smaller military out of fear of being labeled "anti-defense." That makes sense. The minute anyone says defense budgets should shrink or suggests that our forces could be smaller and more focused, the advocates of a larger military swiftly evoke the "anti-defense" moniker.

These are the same advocates who want us to unquestionably accept the current defense budget as the proper baseline. But they fail to recognize that the budget's emergency supplemental funding included in the defense budget since the war on terror began, which escapes the tight scrutiny of regular annual budget processes, has completely undermined any semblance of rational, thoughtful defense planning and budgeting. This is a common occurrence during wartime, when the mantra becomes, "We must spend what it takes," which Congress happily obliges. Thanks to the "wartime" argument, up to 25 percent of total annual defense resources are provided through supplements. And because Congress hasn't raised any serious questions about what the so-called "base" defense budget is buying, military spending slips back and forth between the base budget and emergency supplementals.

The defense-spending baseline needs to be reexamined, if we're going to escape the circular logic of "not enough." Heretical as it may be, the enormous and expensive benefits structure provided for U.S. armed forces needs to be reviewed. Health-care costs for troops and their families now consume more than $30 billion of the defense budget. And health care is only part of the military's operations and maintenance (O&M) spending, which has risen from about $50,000 per troop in the mid-1990s to nearly $115,000 per troop today. Some will argue this is because the forces are smaller. But the reduction was complete by the mid-1990s. O&M spending kept increasing at an average of more than 2 percent per year regardless of the force's size.

As for procurement, the absence of budget discipline has allowed unit costs for major new hardware programs to soar. According to the Government Accountability Office, the unit costs for the space-based infrared satellite architecture intended to support missile defense has risen more than 300 percent since the system began. (Missile defense research is budgeted around $10 billion a year, every year.) The air force's F-22 unit cost has risen nearly 190 percent. The army's future combat system has increased nearly 55 percent and could go higher, according to the Pentagon's independent cost-analysis unit. The next aircraft carrier will cost nearly twice as much as its predecessor.

A larger force will demand more such equipment. Some analysts justify these costs on the basis of Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyses that say we're seriously underfunding the current force's equipment needs. At the risk of getting technical, the CBO estimate is based on a mechanical projection of today's forces, not an analysis of what the forces should look like in the future given a strategy.

A new administration must take a full, detailed look at the vision for U.S. international engagement, the national-security strategy that supports that engagement, the tools necessary to execute that new strategy, and the details of the current "base" defense budget. With such careful scrutiny hopefully coming soon, now is not the time to boost defense resources or guarantee defense spending some proportion of the nation's wealth.