A look at the 2008 defense budget

By Gordon Adams | November 14, 2007

Congress is once again working overtime to complete the federal budget. National security is at the forefront of the debate, as Congress has finally passed (and the president has signed) its $459.3 billion defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008. (The bill also contains another $11.6 billion in emergency spending for the new mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored personnel carrier intended for the army and marines in Iraq.)

The Democrats deferred consideration of the president’s full “emergency” budget request for Iraq–and other war on terror activities–with the House electing to pass a $51 billion down payment, linked to withdrawal conditions that may not survive. Along with the remainder of the president’s emergency request, another $201 billion in “emergency” supplemental defense spending for the war on terror is mostly still pending. If it all passes, the Defense Department’s budget for fiscal year 2008 would be $660 billion, a post-World War II record in uninflated dollars. Overall, since 9/11, U.S. defense spending has reached staggering levels: Including the 2008 funds, taxpayers and lenders will have provided more than $4 trillion for national defense by the end next September.

Have we been getting our money’s worth? Terrorists haven’t launched another attack on U.S. soil, but the number and lethality of global attacks has increased since 9/11. The Iraq War drones on; though Baghdad is apparently quieter, perhaps due to the U.S. “surge,” perhaps due to the religious cleansing that has taken place during the last four years. The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. Pakistan teeters on the edge of political disintegration, while Al Qaeda and the Taliban appear to operate with near impunity in Pakistan’s northwest provinces. Meanwhile, Washington appears to be moving toward a military confrontation with Iran. Turkey is poised to launch attacks against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Iraq’s sole stable region. Oil prices have soared to a historic high, driven, in part, by uncertainties in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, adding to uncertainty about the direction of the U.S. and global economy.

Does the 2008 defense bill reverse this downward spiral? Or does it reflect Congress’s fascination with using the military to solve U.S. security problems? Is a strategic rationale driving this massive spending? Or are we simply buying every capability in sight because we can? And what are the long-term consequences of this pattern for national security?

A big part of the defense bill (more than 38 percent) goes to researching the next generation of military hardware. Some of it does appear to address today’s military needs. But in general, the bill is largely devoted to buying long-term equipment that will make few near-term contributions to U.S. security. There’s $3.2 billion for 20 more F-22s and funds for 13 more C-130J transport aircraft, even though Defense has spent years trying not to buy it. Nearly $3 billion is provided for the next aircraft carrier, $1.7 billion for the next amphibious assault ship, and $1.8 billion for another Virginia class submarine–all three are years away from contributing to current U.S. security needs. There’s $3.6 billion for the army’s endless and increasingly costly “Future Combat System,” an integrated set of vehicles and human systems, linked by a communications network. And there’s $8.7 billion for continued pursuit of national missile defense.

How these capabilities will contribute to U.S. national security strategy is unclear. The aircraft would ensure long-term technological superiority and dominance of the sky. But over whom? And to what strategic end? Current aircraft are equally dominant. No potential adversary in the Mideast maintains or is pursuing a competing capability. The Russian capability remains inferior, and air combat with China would largely involve sea-based aircraft, which doesn’t include the F-22. Why does Washington want such air dominance around the world? And given recent history, would such a role be welcomed?

The same holds true for surface ships and submarines. What is the naval strategy for these acquisitions? Will Washington continue to be responsible for securing the sea? And again, are we welcome in that role? Where would we fight littoral combat? Against whom?

As for national missile defense, few expenditures in the defense budget are more dubious. The current system deployed in Alaska is untested against a serious challenge, and it’s designed to counter a long-term threat.

Expanding the ground forces raises similar dilemmas. The appropriators have provided $6 billion to add 7,000 army troops and another 5,000 marines. The ultimate goal is to permanently increase the ground force by more than 92,000 troops. But when Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided to expand the ground forces in December 2006, he offered force stress in Iraq as the rationale–though the expansion would only be realized after Iraq is largely a memory. Congress went along, afraid they would be accused of not supporting the troops if they didn’t. But why is the force being expanded permanently? Are other Iraq Wars in the offing? If so, what’s the rationale? The conflict with terrorist organizations doesn’t require such an expansion–the military tasks involved require special forces and intelligence officers, not ground troops.

Unlike some critics of the procurement plan, I’m not making a case that all of these systems should be scrapped. My argument is that a sense of strategy is missing from Defense planning and congressional funding. The order of the day is more of everything, and sloppy, politically driven budgeting (both by the administration and Congress) has enabled this absence of strategic thinking. Defense hasn’t been forced into serious budgetary choices since the first emergency supplemental funding bill in October 2001. Defense funding has risen 86 percent since then, making it possible to fund the troops and the war, while continuing to acquire military hardware in all directions. And sometimes emergency war funding bankrolls procurement programs, as the services seek in the emergency bill what they failed to get in the base budget.

Overall, the defense bill reflects the fascination of U.S. politicians and the U.S. public with the idea that every international problem can be solved by the military. There’s no understanding in this bill or in the congressional debate that after seven years of hammering bluntly at the world with our defense capabilities, we’re probably less secure. The stage is set for a new strategy and a new sense of U.S. statecraft, a statecraft that doesn’t rely excessively on the military to preserve our well-being.

When we leave Iraq, as we surely will sooner rather than later, the pressure for smaller defense budgets will grow and emergency supplements will end. In a new administration, Defense will be forced to make choices. Congress will have to choose as well. Building a larger ground force and pushing ahead with a wide range of procurement and research programs may be good budgetary opportunism today, but it could lead to a fiscal mess in the near future.

Worse yet, we won’t have developed an informed strategic view or the budget guidance we need to implement it. We won’t have strengthened nonmilitary tools to carry out balanced statecraft. And we will be left with a series of draconian choices about the military we could have avoided. The result could be even greater damage to our national security.

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