Postelection update: Defense budget

A SAFE survey of defense spending in early 2012 concluded that the cumulative effects of several rounds of cost cutting might be degrading US military capabilities. Cut defense spending with care, 1/23/12.

Three years on, the situation seems worse for two reasons. First, international threats have grown increasingly menacing – we’ll discuss some particulars shortly. Second, no significant action has been taken to restore military spending, so the defense budget has continued shrinking in real economic terms. National defense spending [as a percentage of GDP] would plummet under Obama’s budget, Heritage Foundation,


Some observers view the situation with equanimity, reasoning that the United States has been spending more than enough for national defense and has used its outsized forces for dubious undertakings. Toward a prudent foreign policy, Christopher Preble, Reason Magazine, January 2015.

Although there may be occasions when military force is required to eliminate an urgent threat, thus necessitating an always-strong military, our capacity for waging war far exceeds that which is required in the modern world. Despite the ostensible end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military’s non-war budget [several military operations are currently going on] remains extraordinarily high.

Others feel the US must maintain military preeminence lest a power vacuum be created that nations with less benign intentions would fill. The world America made, Robert Kagan,

History shows that any world order depends on the existence and if necessary use of military power; the leading nations will not voluntarily subordinate their ambitions to someone else’s notion of the greater good. Likely results of US decline would be less democracy in the world, more barriers to trade, and far more risk of major wars. Ergo, the costs involved could far outweigh the potential benefits of slicing defense spending by, say, $100 billion a year.

And as Representative Paul Ryan has pointed out, the consequences of bad military and foreign policy decisions are not simply theoretical. The way forward: Renewing the American idea,
August 2014.

What keeps me up at night is the real and lasting damage that is being done to our national defense and foreign policy. For years, many of us have been warning that without strong leadership backed up by a powerful military, the world will be a more chaotic place. As I write, events are, unfortunately, proving our case.

Who is right about America’s proper place in the world, libertarians or defense hawks like Kaplan? Both sides make some telling points, and we are not convinced that there is a certifiably correct answer.

Thus, we agree with Christopher Preble et al. that US military power should only be used when (1) our vital interests are at stake (America can’t solve every problem in the world, and it’s not sensible to try), and (2) forbearance, diplomacy, or sanctions can’t do the job.

Consider the unconvincing explanations that were offered for US participation in international military actions that led to the downfall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Libya: Obama says US intervention will be limited,,

US participation in the coalition had saved “countless lives” by stopping Gadaffi’s deadly advance on rebel forces – Gadaffi “had lost any legitimacy to rule” and should step down, thereby giving the Libyan people “the political space to determine their own future” – however, an intent to overthrow Gadaffi by force was [implausibly] denied.

Gadaffi fell in short order, which destabilized Libya and created opportunities for new terrorist organizations. US diplomatic personnel pulled out in 2014 because it was no longer safe for them to be in the country. Report: Islamist terrorists overtake US embassy in Libya, Matthew Burke,,

But we would fault libertarians for focusing on certain international threats, notably terrorist networks, while downplaying other problems. Consider this passage from Preble’s article.
Toward a prudent foreign policy, op cit.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, Americans annually spend more now than we did, on average, during the Cold War [this claim is not supported by the Heritage chart], when we were facing off against a global empire with a functioning army and navy, a modern air force, and thousands of nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States in a matter of minutes. Al Qaeda and all of its copycats combined can’t muster even 1/1000th of the destructive power of the Soviet Union.

Granted, terrorist networks are unlikely to develop massive military forces with nuclear strike capabilities, but what about North Korea (an unstable nation that has nuclear weapons and is developing missiles to deliver them) or Iran (which is working hard to develop nuclear capabilities that would make the Middle East a dangerous place indeed)?

And then there are Russia and China, both of which have military capabilities they might be tempted to use against the US at some point (or threaten to use, with the potential for miscalculation on either side). For those inclined to view such concerns as a relic of the Cold War era, here are some reports that suggest otherwise.

•10 signs that
Russia is preparing to fight (and win) a nuclear war with the United States, Michael Snyder,, 11/25/14.

. . .the Russians have been developing some very impressive stealth delivery systems which have the capability of hitting targets inside the United States within just minutes of an order being issued. This is particularly true of their submarine-launched missiles. The newest Russian subs have the ability to approach our coastlines without us even knowing that they are there. If the Russians came to the conclusion that war with the United States was unavoidable, an overwhelming first strike using submarine-based missiles could potentially take out nearly our entire arsenal before we even knew what hit us. And if the Russians have an anti-ballistic missile system that can intercept the limited number of rockets that we can launch in return, they may be able to escape relatively unscathed.

•For the first time, Russia has more deployed nuclear warheads than US, Bill Gertz, Washington Times,

•Russian submarine test launches Bulava intercontinental missile, Reuters,

•A Russian plane zaps US warship’s missile defense system, turning a US destroyer equipped with the latest Aegis Combat System into “a defenseless floating coffin,” Gary North,,

•Russian strategic bombers near Canada, practice cruise missile strikes on US, Bill Gertz,,

•US military struggling to combat threat of cruise missiles from the Gulf of Mexico, Frances Martel,,

•China and the United States are preparing for war; Despite the Obama-Xi handshake deal, the probability of confrontation will only heighten as long as the PLA remains a black box, Michael Pillsbury,,

•China conducts third flight test of hypersonic strike vehicle; Missile-launched Wu-14 glide vehicle designed for nuclear strikes against US through missile defenses, Bill Gertz,,

•Chinese air force closes gap with US, Kris Osborn,,

•China’s fleet will outnumber US by 2020: report, Douglas Ernst, Washington Times,

Enough said, we would think, to establish that defense spending should be accorded high priority versus other areas of the budget like healthcare, agricultural subsidies, corporate welfare, etc. It would be unwise to continue cutting the military establishment in real economic terms, and some of the cuts already made may need to be restored.

We recognized that more defense spending might be needed in a recent entry, and suggested that it should be paid for (in addition to balancing the budget) by eliminating wasteful or nonessential spending. Postelection update: Deficits & debt,

A larger amount of spending cuts (say $1.5 trillion for FY 2016-18 versus the initial goal of $1.1 trillion) might be indicated if it were concluded that projected levels of defense spending must be increased in the interest of preserving national security. The possible need for such action will be explored in the final entry of this postelection review series.

But this does not mean the defense budget should be considered untouchable. While more money needs to be spent in some areas, and quite possibly overall, there are certainly areas in which defense money is being wasted and cuts should be made. See the following spend more/ spend less outline for discussion.

Spend more – The US can ill afford to have its strategic plans and advanced weapon systems stolen and countered or replicated by Russia, China et al. Hacked, cracked, and shellacked: US weapons systems, Gary North,, 11/15/14. Therefore the government’s cyber security must be beefed up.

Catch-up spending will be imperative to overhaul and modernize the US nuclear arsenal and delivery systems. Hagel calls for reform of US nuclear force, Charles Hoskinson, Washington Examiner,

The Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 budget calls for dramatic increases in spending on a new manned bomber for the Air Force and a nuclear ballistic missile submarine for the Navy. The third leg of the nuclear triad, the 450 land-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, are being considered for modernization as well. The budget also includes more funding for new warheads and missiles and for refurbishing existing ones. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the program would cost $355 billion by 2023 *** [These] plans are “unaffordable” under current budget constraints and “would likely come at the expense of needed improvements in conventional forces,” noted a bipartisan, congressionally appointed panel that reviewed U.S. military strategy for a report issued in July.

Unless the United States is willing to undertake military action against Iran, which the current administration seems to have effectively ruled out, it’s only a matter of time until Iran develops nuclear weapons and becomes capable of nuclear blackmail. Accordingly, it would seem prudent to upgrade the Patriot missile defense network. Diplomacy failed in Iran: Fund missile defense, George Landrith,,

While the world talks and negotiates over Iran’s nuclear program, they continue to race towards a nuclear capability and continue to develop missiles that threaten our allies and troops in the Middle East. If Congress funds Patriot modernization, it would be taking concrete steps to counter Iran and at the same time make sure a proven system is modernized and upgraded to continue its strong record of defense and preventing missile attacks.

Other antimissile systems also need to be robustly supported in light of the growing threats from Russia and China. Ashton Carter and the future of missile defense, Scott Erickson,,

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA), responsible for conducting "research, development, and acquisition" of ballistic missile defense systems for the Department of Defense, has seen its budget shrink over the past several years from a high of $9.4 billion in FY2007 to just $7.6 billion in FY2014. The drop in funding has only been [aggravated] by the ill effects of sequestration on the Defense Department.

And generally speaking, we question the cutbacks in conventional military force levels that are underway with no corresponding shrinkage in the responsibilities of the US military. Why it’s insane to shrink our military as much as Hagel wants to, James Carafano, daily,

With a rising China, a restive Russia, a Middle East in meltdown, al Qaeda alive and Iran and North Korea as rogue as ever, he can’t seriously suggest the U.S. will be just fine with a smaller, less capable military. It is like saying we can responsibly cancel our fire insurance, now that there are so many arsonists in the neighborhood.

See also the comments of Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno as to the consequences of budget cuts. Congress on verge of doing what Taliban, al Qaeda can’t: break US Army, Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times,

“In the past, we maybe focused on one big fight somewhere,” Gen. Odierno recently told a group of defense reporters, according to the Army Times. “We believe, with the new Army operating concept, we have to be able to do multiple small-scale things simultaneously. We might have to be able to operate with smaller capability on four different continents at the same time because that’s the way the world is developing.” [Odierno added] that more budget cuts will take the Army to a “breaking point.” He said he would have to further reduce purchases of weapons systems needed to modernize a war-weary force.

Tight budgets, personnel reduction and a perceived erosion of public support have also led to plunging morale in the armed forces. America’s military: A force adrift, Military Times,
12/7/14. See this video (4:24) for discussion of how the survey was conducted and its key findings.

Spend less – One cost reduction opportunity would be to prune the defense establishment bureaucracy, which has expanded greatly over the years as bureaucracies are prone to do (Parkinson’s law). There have been periodic calls to address the problem, but no concerted efforts to do so. The Pentagon’s greatest challenge (and it’s not ISIS or China), James Carafano, Heritage Foundation, 11/6/14.

Washington, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Build an office building three times bigger than the Empire State Building, and you’re bound to run out of room. Today, staffers working for the defense department, the Joint Staff, the staffs of the military services and the supporting agencies spill over from the Pentagon to fill offices throughout the DC metropolitan area and beyond. There are about 800,000 defense civilian employees—about half as many men and women as there are wearing [a uniform] on active duty (i.e. not counting National Guard and Reserve military personnel).

Note that efforts to slash Pentagon overhead should extend to government contractors, which handle a myriad of functions, as well as in-house operations. Watchdog [nonprofit Project on Government Oversight] probe pressures Pentagon to control contracted-out spending, Sarah Westbrook, Washington Examiner,

Defense spent $187 billion on service contracts in 2012, according to the Government Accountability Office. *** Such contractors provide the Defense Department with services that range from medical care to intelligence support, GAO said. ***A POGO analysis of the pay civilian defense employees and contractors receive revealed the Department of Defense pays contractors nearly three times the amount they would pay their federal employees to perform the same work.

Another oft cited opportunity is to phase out outmoded weapons, such as the Abrams tank, which are supposedly still being made to support defense firms with plants located in key congressional districts. Taxpayers shortchanged by bloated Defense bill, Brandon Arnold, the Hill,

The bill . . . adds $120 million in funding for a program to upgrade the M-1 Abrams tank, despite a current surplus of tanks that dates back to the Cold War. These additional resources were not requested by the Pentagon, which has practically begged Congress to stop funding the production of additional tanks.

Don’t accept such claims automatically, however, because some weapons on the chopping block may be needed and useful. Thus, the Pentagon has proposed elimination of the A-10 Warthog fighter jet, apparently as part of efforts to ensure funding for other aircraft programs, despite the Warthog’s proven effectiveness in Middle East operations. Unloved warthog lives to fight another day, Christopher Hoskinson, Washington Examiner,

The plane, affectionately nicknamed the Warthog, is slow and ugly compared with the Air Force's other fighter jets, especially the stealthy, supersonic F-35 that is scheduled to replace it [in a few years, not available now]. But it's also heavily armed and armored, making it a deadly weapon in close-in combat against enemy ground forces and a welcome sight for friendly troops.

See also Paul Ryan’s comments on the Warthog.
The way forward, op. cit.

Other aircraft in our fleet are too fast, too fragile, or too loaded down with equipment to do what the Warthog can, so in the heat of battle it’s an indispensable tool. The Warthog’s unique features include its redundant systems and its ability to absorb a lot of damage and keep on flying *** And with a cost of $11.8 million per plane (in 1997 dollars) and $17,504 per hour in the air, it is relatively cheap for a military plane.

Given many demands on the military services, one might question sending the military on feel good humanitarian missions such as disaster relief or fighting an epidemic in Africa. Active duty commanders cannot publicly question such orders, but some retired generals have spoken out. Generals blast Obama’s order of troops to fight Ebola, Michael Maloof,,

The mission of the military is to fight war, not to fight Ebola,” said Lt. General William (Jerry) Boykin. “It is a misuse of our military, and I for one am very opposed to this [deployment].”

Is the cost of military operations being inflated by muddled headed environmental policies? Clearly, the military should not be used as a conduit for the payment of de facto subsidies to alternative energy firms. Report [GAO]: Pentagon paid $150 per gallon for green jet fuel, Lachlan Markay,,

More generally, the president has directed the military to reflect the war against climate change in its operating strategies – and goodness knows how much this is costing. The Pentagon’s war on the global climate, Jed Babbin, Washington Times,

“Climate change adaptation” comes in the form of required studies and planning. It requires guidance be given to combatant commanders so that they will include climate concerns in “Theater Campaign Plans, Operations Plans, Contingency Plans and Theater Security Cooperation Plans.” That means climate change concerns have to be injected into battlefield planning and military training. It mandates assessments of how defense activities may affect “unique landscapes, ecosystems and habitats.” Accordingly, the Marines may have to choose which beach to storm not on the basis of taking their objective with the least casualties but by measuring which beach will suffer less erosion owing to their landing.

In a similar vein, there has been a concerted effort to implement social policies in the military that might seem like a diversion from the core mission of being prepared to fight and win wars. Consider the crackdown on sexual assaults, which has become something of a crusade and is generating a record volume of assault claims (although presumably a reduction in assaults). US military has 1,000 full-time, 22,000 part-time sexual assault response coordinators, Jeryl Bier, Weekly Standar
d, 12/12/14.

In furtherance of the campaign against sexual assaults, a survey was developed that “is unusually detailed, including graphically personal questions on sexual acts.” Hundreds of thousands of service members were asked to complete this survey, and many of them considered it intrusive. Military service members complain about sex survey, Lolita Baldor, AP,

Another survey identified crackdowns on sexual assault, etc. as contributing to low morale. One Navy officer who reviewed the results wrote of expending immense resources (training time, etc.) “to eradicate behavior that is, by its very nature, ineradicable.” Navy sailors distrust commanders, fear crippling political correctness, Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times,

A final suggestion on improving the management of the defense budget is consistency over time. A pattern of boom or bust spending (as indicated by the Heritage chart shown earlier) is inherently inefficient. For example, why recruit a wave of young officers while the military is in an expansion phase, only to terminate half of them a few years later just as they are getting good at their jobs? The nation’s political leaders and defense establishment can and must do a better job of running the show.

Thank you for calling your blog entry to my attention. It appears that we agree on certain points, as you note, but not the bottom line. (A) While military spending as a share of total economic output has been declining for years, actual spending, in real, inflation-adjusted dollars, remains well above the pre-9/11 levels and is higher, even, than the average during the Cold War. Americans also spend far more on a per capita basis that any of our allies. (B) Just because our society has grown wealthier does not mean that it should spend more on the military. Moreover, technology has reduced the unit cost of most of the things that we use today. - Christopher Preble, Cato Institute

We’re inclined to think that % of GDP is a reasonable basis for tracking defense expenditures over time. A % of GDP approach certainly involves less potential for statistical manipulation than tracking expenditures in “real, inflation-adjusted dollars.” But in any case, this comment misses the real point, which is that the passage from Preble’s article that we quoted implies that the only threats that the US has to be prepared against are from terrorist networks. We can see no way to rationally decide how much to spend on national defense without considering the alarming and growing threats from North Korea, Iran, Russia and China. - SAFE
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