Providing for the Common Defense: Why 4 percent?

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Providing for the Common Defense: Why 4 percent?

April 2, 2008 9 min read
The Heritage Foundation
  1. How can the U.S. afford to spend 4 percent of GDP on defense if there is an economic recession?

    Traditionally, America has spent more than 4 percent of its GDP on defense-in bad and good economic times. So there's no question about affordability.

    The question implies that defense is the best place to start cutting if economic woes force Congress to reduce federal spending.  That's both inaccurate and unfair.  The question also implies that poor economic performance is unaffected by government policy.

    The Heritage Foundation has recommended an overall economic policy, which accounts for the 4 percent commitment to defense, that is designed to promote higher economic growth. This broader policy recognizes that the United States will cease to be a superpower if its economy declines. The Soviet Union demonstrated the devastating effects of a bad economy on military strength in the 1980s, which took place in the context of frantic attempts by the Soviet government to sustain high levels of defense expenditures in the face of chronic economic decline.

    Providing for the national defense is one of the few duties that the Constitution assigns to the federal government. If cuts are necessary, Congress should look first to the non-constitutionally required "extras" that eat up the vast majority of the federal budget. 

    The economic policy recommended by The Heritage Foundation insists on restraining the projected growth in overall federal spending. Objective analysis points to the fact that reductions in spending growth should be made first in non-essential programs and then among the programs that are responsible for driving the budget ever higher. 

    The culprit here is not defense. Since 1990, domestic discretionary spending has grown nearly twice as fast as spending on defense and homeland security (62 percent v. 33 percent). This is where Congress should "look first" when eyeing ways to pare spending. Heritage also recognizes that restraining the growth in spending on domestic programs will permit the lower tax rates that will sustain higher levels of economic growth.

  2. What happens if we commit to spending 4 percent on defense and the threats change?

    The Heritage Foundation calculated the 4 percent requirement on a capabilities-based approach. This way the military will have what it needs to deal with a wide variety of contingencies, many of which will be impossible to predict. Using the capabilities-based approach will give the military the inherent flexibility to respond to rapidly changing threat assessments.

    Generally speaking, changes in the threat assessment come in two forms. The first is an advance in military technology made by potential enemies of the United States. The 4 percent benchmark is designed to increase funding for the research and development and procurement accounts in order for the U.S. military to remain the most technologically advanced in the world. Thus, the 4 percent benchmark is specifically designed to address this kind change in the threat assessment through the capabilities-based approach.

    The second form is an unfolding of international events that would lead to operational requirements that were not previously anticipated. The 4 percent benchmark specifically excludes funding for these requirements. Rather, it anticipates that in the future-as in the past-that increased operational requirements will be funded through supplemental appropriations.

  3. Why can't the services just make hard choices and eliminate Cold War relic programs to free up additional cash to pay the bills?

    The military has been making hard budgetary choices for the last 15 years. That's because Congress chose to expand politically popular domestic programs by cashing a Cold War "peace dividend."  As a result, the Pentagon was forced to cut troop strength and reduce its air and naval fleets. Most importantly, the military services procurement accounts for buying new weapons and equipment were reduced substantially in the 1990s.

    Congress has started to recognize the problems created by years of underfunding the military. They are now requiring the Army and Marines to increase their end strength.  On the other hand, funding levels for the procurement accounts have only started to recover. Today, the Pentagon faces a $100 billion annual shortfall in its procurement and modernization accounts. Eliminating that shortfall will require a sustained investment at 4 percent of GDP. Absent that level of investment, the U.S. military will lose the technological edge that empowers service men and women to defend the nation with a minimum of American-and non-combatant-causalities. Given this reality, politicians should know better than to refer to "choices" or options which the military no longer has. 

  4. Why can't we just eliminate all the fraud, waste, and abuse in the Department of Defense (DoD)? 4 percent funding level will be enough to meet the nation's core defense needs only if both Congress and the DoD bend every effort to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. In this context, however, it is important to recognize why there is wasteful spending in the first place. Only occasionally is it is the result of the Department's malfeasance, although these instances are highlighted in the press. The real problem is systemic.
    Defense Secretary Gates' four immediate predecessors all campaigned to reduce waste and improve procurement practices. Yet throughout those campaigns, the budgetary shortfall continued to grow-during Democratic and Republican Administrations alike.  This is indicative of the fact that Congress has failed to modify its oversight functions and ease the legislative requirements that have resulted in an overly bureaucratic and inefficient management system at the DoD. Altering these requirements will be a long process because Congress's incentive to change its practices is limited. Taking these steps would reduce Congress's power to second-guess every decision made at the DoD. 

    Given this reality, it is wrong to ask that the overall military capabilities of the United States be permitted to atrophy and the DoD be penalized because of Congress's failure to act. While pressing Congress to make needed reforms, it is unavoidably the case that the DoD must be funded on the basis of the legislative system that is in place now.

  5. Why don't America's allies just pick up more of the burden?

    They should. And if they do, the United States could safely adjust the 4 percent figure downward. But that day is not yet on the horizon. The U.S. should not let the remote possibility that its allies will suddenly start pulling their weight be an excuse for continuing to underfund the needs of its own military. In fact, decisions by the United States to reduce funding for its military make it all the more likely that the allies of the United States will undertake another round of defense funding reductions. 

    As the current Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Ike Skelton (D-MO), has aptly stated, "To depend on allies to carry out our strategy is the height of folly." In terms of meeting the overall military needs of the free world, the United States will have to lead by example. 

  6. How can the U.S. military possibly need more money when it already spends more today than during World War II?

    Actually, as a percentage of GDP, America today spends a small fraction on defense compared to what it spent during World War II. 
    Moreover, the nature of warfare, America's obligations, and the culture of the military have undergone the following changes that make the comparison inappropriate: 

    * Today's military employs expensive technological weapons systems that offer significant battlefield advantages-not the least of which is a dramatic reduction in both civilian casualties and American military casualties.  

    * The United States relies on an all-volunteer force that is more expensive than the conscripted armies of World War II.  

    * Finally, America's objective now is to deter as well as to win conflicts. To deter conflict, it must sustain its strength at a level that guarantees success in the event an engagement does occur-during peacetime and times of conflict.

  7. If the all-volunteer force is strained and expensive, why not just institute a draft?

    First, the all-volunteer force has become so established that instituting a draft would radically disrupt the culture of the military, threaten the critical skills that are necessary to defend the country, and risk undermining capability. Second, policymakers should not conscript tens of thousands of America's young people, taking away several years of their lives, just to avoid increasing defense expenditures by three- or four-tenths of 1 percent. The shortfall in funding is substantial, but nowhere near large enough to justify such a sacrifice of freedom on the part of so many people.

  8. Why not simply eliminate unproven weapons systems like missile defense to meet the military's needs?

    Eliminating "unproven" weapons systems means eliminating any new system. Sealing the military off from technological advancements is no way to prepare to meet future risks.

    As for missile defense, it's needed now more than ever. The number of "nuclear" nations has grown from nine countries in 1972 to 27 as of the fall of 2007. Extensive war-gaming has shown that in such a widely proliferated world, missile defense serves to stabilize international relations, reducing the risk of nuclear warfare.

  9. Why 4 percent of GDP on defense?  Why not more or less?

    Defending America may well require more. Indeed, several well-informed lawmakers, as well as defense-savvy organizations-such as the Military Officers Association of America, The Military Coalition, Aerospace Industries Association, The Navy League, and American Enterprise Institute-have all called for a commitment of 4 percent or more.

    Heritage has documented a huge funding shortfall of at least $100 billion per year which, if added to current estimates for the core defense budget, would bring that budget up to approximately 4 percent of the GDP. By setting 4 percent of GDP as a floor for the defense budget, Heritage gives the public a bright line test for holding Congress and the President accountable for meeting their constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense.  

  10. Why can't the services just tell Congress and the President what they need, and then let them figure out how much it would cost to meet these requirements?

    The services can and will do that. The problem is that when political authorities underfund the military, defense authorities rarely object.  Why?  Because the Chiefs of Staff do not like to publicly criticize their political masters. 

    The 4 percent floor is the best way to assure accountability because, as the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs have already said, that is the minimum the United States will need to spend in the foreseeable future to protect America.  

  11. How can the United States justify spending more than the rest of the world combined on defense, even if it is only 4 percent of its Gross Domestic Product?

    Since World War II, the United States has assumed the leadership role in protecting the security of its treaty allies and preserving freedom. In places like the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, the Sea of Japan, and Eastern Europe, the presence of U.S. forces helps to ensure the continuation of peace. America's Navy and Coast Guard also patrol throughout the world's vast oceans, assuring the free flow of goods in a global economy.  
    For more than 60 years, the U.S. has undertaken-and met-these international obligations, no matter which political party held sway in Washington. The U.S. cannot reduce its defense spending without substantially abandoning these obligations. 

    Most importantly, the United States has not assumed these obligations just for altruistic reasons. These obligations have empowered America to control its destiny in a dangerous world. Relinquishing these obligations is a gamble that places America's future in the hands of other powers, which may or may not share the values upon which the United States was founded.

    Finally, it is important to consider the hidden costs of military weakness. Absent U.S. leadership, the resulting global instability could lead to another major war, far more costly to America and others than a sustained 4 percent investment. Moreover, the country would be in a position of sending servicemen and women into battle with consciously inferior material and support.

  12. Why do we need to spend more on defense?

    As currently constituted, the American military cannot possibly obtain the capabilities it needs to respond to unexpected or unpredictable threats-much less to meet every demand America has asked it to perform over the last decade.

    America's Air Force, for example, is far too old. The average age of planes in the fleet has soared from nine in 1973 to 24 years old today. Many planes are older than their pilots. In short, policymakers are telling the Air Force to do more with less.

    The story is much the same for the Navy, which has pressing modernization requirements. Though Congress has approved building a modern fleet of 326 ships by 2020, it has approved spending that falls at least $5 billion short per year of what's needed to make that fleet a reality. Today, the Navy has 276 hulls.

    Meanwhile, the active-duty Army, which had 18 divisions at the end of the Cold War, currently consists of only 10 divisions. The past six years have showed that the Army needs to be large enough to sustain large-scale operations without having to deploy the same units multiple times or extend their deployments over the duration of the mission.  Further, the Army needs to equip its force with new weapons to meet it mission requirements in the future.


The Heritage Foundation