5 myths about de­fense spend­ing.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY GOR­DON ADAMS AND MATTHEW LEATHER­MAN Gor­don Adams is a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity and a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the Stim­son Cen­ter, a global se­cu­rity think tank. Matthew Leather­man is a re­search as­so­ci­ate at the Stim­son

De­fense spend­ing is a mas­sive part of our fed­eral bud­get— and a cause of equally mas­sive de­bate, whether in wartime or in peace. With fis­cal pres­sures ris­ing, De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert Gates has de­tailed a repri­or­i­ti­za­tion of Pen­tagon re­sources and a $78 bil­lion re­duc­tion in planned de­fense spend­ing over the next five years. But he has also ar­gued that “when it comes to the deficit, the Depart­ment of De­fense is not the prob­lem.” ¶ Still, the $720 bil­lion de­fense bud­get is a very large share of fed­eral dis­cre­tionary spend­ing — more than half in 2010. We can no longer sep­a­rate na­tional se­cu­rity from fis­cal im­per­a­tives. Un­for­tu­nately, sev­eral myths keep us from a more dis­ci­plined de­fense bud­get.

De­fense spend­ing is dic­tated by the threats we face.

1 The chal­lenges posed by ter­ror­ism, cy­ber-threats and mil­i­tary buildups by po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries clearly play a role in shap­ing our na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy and de­fense bud­get. But so do com­pet­ing govern­ment pri­or­i­ties in the face of limited re­sources, po­lit­i­cal and bureau­cratic in­ter­ests, and the in­flu­ence of the de­fense in­dus­try. At times, these is­sues over­whelm se­cu­rity con­cerns.

As a re­sult, bud­get­ing de­ci­sions can ap­pear off-course. Should we in­vest in our mil­i­tary’s ca­pac­ity to re­build post­con­flict so­ci­eties, even if we are un­likely to en­gage soon in an­other war of regime change? Or should we spend as if we will soon con­front China at sea and in the air, even if we are un­likely to do so? The White House, the Pen­tagon and Congress have enor­mous dis­cre­tion in these de­ci­sions.

Some­times fund­ing also meets purely parochial or in­dus­trial needs. In Au­gust, for ex­am­ple, Gates an­nounced his de­ci­sion to close the Joint Forces Com­mand in Nor­folk, which costs $240 mil­lion an­nu­ally to op­er­ate. But af­ter heavy crit­i­cism from state of­fi­cials, Gates de­cided that half of the com­mand’s ac­tiv­i­ties should con­tinue, to be car­ried out by other De­fense Depart­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions in Vir­ginia’s Tide­wa­ter re­gion. Lo­cal pol­i­tics trumped ef­fi­ciency.

The larger the Pen­tagon’s bud­get, the safer we are.

2 Ex­ces­sive de­fense spend­ing can make us less se­cure, not more. Coun­tries feel threat­ened when ri­vals ramp up their de­fenses; this was true in the Cold War, and now it may hap­pen with China. It’s how arms races are born. We spend more, in­spir­ing com­peti­tors to do the same — thus in­flat­ing de­fense bud­gets with­out mak­ing any­one safer.

For ex­am­ple, Gates ob­served in May that no other coun­try has a sin­gle ship com­pa­ra­ble to our 11 air­craft car­ri­ers. Based on the per­ceived threat that this fleet poses, the Chi­nese are pur­su­ing an anti-ship bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram. U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have de­cried this “car­ri­erkiller” ef­fort, and in re­sponse we are diver­si­fy­ing our ca­pa­bil­i­ties to strike China, in­clud­ing a new long-range bomber pro­gram, and mod­ern­iz­ing our car­rier fleet at a cost of about $10 bil­lion per ship.

This coun­try has re­mained se­cure in eras of de­clin­ing de­fense bud­gets, such as the post­war pe­riod of the Eisen­hower pres­i­dency and the early post-Cold War years. Pres­i­dents Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Bill Clin­ton re­duced ac­tive-duty forces by 700,000, Pen­tagon civil­ians by 300,000, de­fense pro­cure­ment dol­lars by 53 per­cent and over­all na­tional de­fense spend­ing by 28 per­cent — and we were still able to carry out one of the Pen­tagon’s top plan­ning sce­nar­ios: oc­cu­py­ing Iraq in 2003. (The wis­dom of that de­ci­sion is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.)

Repub­li­cans like de­fense spend­ing; Democrats don’t.

3 Since 1945, de­fense spend­ing has risen in wartime and fallen as con­flicts end. Dwight Eisen­hower re­duced na­tional de­fense out­lays by 28 per­cent from their 1953 Korean War peak. Pres­i­dents Richard Nixon and Ger­ald Ford went even fur­ther, cut­ting 37 per­cent from the de­fense bud­get af­ter the Viet­nam-era high in 1968. And Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush had cut 14 per­cent com­pared with the 1989 Cold War bud­get by the time he left of­fice.

All these pres­i­dents were Repub­li­cans. Mean­while, af­ter ad­just­ing for in­fla­tion, the most ex­pen­sive de­fense bud­get in more than 60 years be­longs to Pres­i­dent Obama, a Demo­crat.

Of course, Democrats have also found sav­ings at the Pen­tagon. Clin­ton ex­tended the post-Cold War draw­down through his 1998 bud­get, and Obama will prob­a­bly start postIraq and Afghanistan de­fense cuts soon — po­ten­tially with sup­port from new Repub­li­can House lead­ers such as Eric Can­tor ( Va.) and Paul Ryan ( Wis.), who have said that de­fense will not be ex­empt from the fis­cal axe.

To­day’s lev­els of mil­i­tary pay and ben­e­fits are nec­es­sary.

4 Just as in any other la­bor mar­ket, the sup­ply of and de­mand for work­ers de­ter­mines the pay needed to main­tain a pro­fes­sional mil­i­tary. But mil­i­tary pay and ben­e­fits are af­fected by other fac­tors: Congress has learned that boost­ing mil­i­tary com­pen­sa­tion is the eas­i­est way to show that you’re sup­port­ing the troops.

Gates expressed frus­tra­tion in May with Congress’s prac­tice in re­cent years of adding half a per­cent to the mil­i­tary pay raises the Pen­tagon re­quested. While it does not sound like much, that in­crease is enor­mous — as much as $450 mil­lion a year — be­cause it ap­plies to all ac­tive-duty troops rather than tar­get­ing key spe­cial­iza­tions that the mil­i­tary needs.

Ben­e­fit costs for the mil­i­tary have also been in­creas­ing. Health care has been a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem, with Pen­tagon health-care bud­gets ris­ing from $19 bil­lion in 2001 to more than $50 bil­lion to­day. This in­crease has been driven largely by the growth in the cost of health care gen­er­ally and the ex­pan­sion of the ben­e­fi­ciary pool to in­clude more re­tirees and re­servists. Congress has also re­sisted the Pen­tagon’s re­cent an­nual re­quests to in­crease en­roll­ment fees for work­ing-age re­tirees, even though these have not changed in 15 years.

Gates’s cuts are enough.

5 They’re a small step in the right di­rec­tion, but the pro­posed cuts would still leave the level of de­fense spend­ing far above what we need. The United States spent more on na­tional de­fense last year, in in­fla­tion-ad­justed dol­lars, than in any year dur­ing the Cold War, even though we no longer face an ex­is­ten­tial Soviet-style threat.

Our se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion per­mits us to spend in a more dis­ci­plined way, and our fis­cal cir­cum­stances re­quire it. Pub­licly held fed­eral debt takes up a greater share of the U.S. econ­omy — roughly 64 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get — than any time since 1951. Fail­ing to con­trol this debt means that in­ter­est pay­ments will con­sume fu­ture bud­gets and limit our spend­ing, even for de­fense.

As we de­tail in an es­say in the lat­est For­eign Af­fairs, the na­tional de­fense bud­get pro­pos­als could be lower by an ag­gre­gate of roughly $1 tril­lion through 2020, still leav­ing us to spend $6.3 tril­lion on de­fense over that pe­riod. This can be done while re­tain­ing our mil­i­tary dom­i­nance and build­ing a more ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient force.

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