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Military a bargain next to retiring boomers

Created on February 4, 2009

Military a bargain next to retiring boomers

Military Readiness Depends on a Consistent Investment

By Ken McIntyre

Maintaining and modernizing our armed forces doesn't just protect America, it fulfills the Constitution's mandate to "provide for the common defense."

Yet the defense budget appears to be one place where President Barack Obama and Congress are looking to offset massive new spending elsewhere -- "stimulating" or otherwise.

"The Pentagon faces a $100 billion annual shortfall in its procurement and modernization accounts," warns Kim Holmes, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at The Heritage Foundation. "The question facing Mr. Obama is not whether to trim a few expensive and unnecessary weapons systems, but whether he is willing to forgo America's military edge by skipping or delaying construction of the next generation of modern weapons."

Specially trained troops, updated equipment and "smart" weaponry to counter tomorrow's threats are both necessary and a relative bargain for taxpayers, their children and grandchildren, Holmes and other Heritage analysts conclude. The crushing burden comes from the rapidly escalating cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

Even before 77 million baby boomers retire in great numbers, the government is spending more than twice as much for the three major entitlement programs than for the military as a percentage of the U.S. economy (as the chart above shows).

In coming decades, the cost of entitlements will leap from 8.4 percent to 18.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Without reform, our well-intentioned promises will require raising taxes by the equiva­lent of $12,072 per household or eliminating every other program -- including defense, transportation, housing and education.

Entitlement spending first outpaced the defense budget in 1975, growing from 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1965 to 8.5 percent last year. Defense spending, which fell below 5 percent of GDP in the early 1990s, had almost hit 3 percent by the time terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Detroit got into trouble because of bad businesses practices," Heritage national security expert James Carafano writes. "The armed forces are in trouble because Washington under-funded the military in the 1990s and shrunk it too much to cope with the threats of the post-Cold War world.

"Spiraling manpower costs and modernization demands are growing at an unprecedented rate, with many ships, planes and tanks older than their crews,"Carafano adds.

Some in Congress, including Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), predict more defense cuts. Others agree with Heritage that maintaining our military capability requires spending the equivalent of at least 4 percent of GDP on defense for five years or more. They seek to put that commitment into law.

"The recession may make meeting a 4 percent commitment politically more difficult," Holmes notes, "but only because we have not yet had an honest debate about where most government spending has been going."