March 17, 2003

March 17, 2003 | Commentary on Federal Budget

The Price of Freedom

It's going to take a lot of money to keep America's armed forces the best in the world as they're sent off to the trouble spots of the 21st century. But with the costs of just one possible conflict-a war in Iraq-estimated to run close to $100 billion, is it literally worth the price?

Absolutely-and we should be willing to pay more if it means getting rid of or muzzling Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Kim Jong Il in North Korea and Osama bin Laden in whatever cave he may be hiding in. But that doesn't mean Congress and the Pentagon should spend all this money unwisely.

The Defense Department's budget for this year is $355.5 billion. That's an increase of $37.5 billion from last year to prepare our troops for future missions in the war against terrorism, as well as emerging threats such as Iraq and North Korea.

But frankly, they could have received even more money-and Congress is partly to blame. It wasted the nation's historic budget surplus on special-interest projects that have nothing to do with the war on terrorism, including-no joke-a fabled tattoo-removal program in California and a $500,000 bike trail in North Dakota.

The Pentagon can trim some of its fiscal fat, too. For example, the armed forces spend about $3 billion a year on peace operations in the Balkans. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it's quite noble. But that nobility becomes burdensome when, since Sept. 11, 2001, America also has sent armed forces to Afghanistan, Djibouti, Kuwait, the Philippines, Yemen and elsewhere to wage the war against terrorism.

Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld agrees that some cuts can be made. He once said that his department could save 5 percent of its budget annually by using simple, more efficient measures in its offices. In addition, a panel of experts appointed by Rumsfeld has estimated that the Pentagon could save $15 billion to $30 billion each year by overhauling its financial practices.

The Pentagon could also close some military bases to save money. Believe it not, the Pentagon has 20 percent to 25 percent more military bases than it needs, even with the rounds of base closings that followed the end of the Cold War. The savings from the four previous rounds of base closings alone was nearly $16 billion.

Congress and President Bush are making some progress in spending defense dollars better. For example, they eliminated the Crusader mobile artillery system-a system designed to fight Soviet armies in Europe. Congress also has finally agreed to close more unnecessary and underused military bases beginning in 2005.

But if America's armed forces are to perform at the high level that we, and the world, expect from them, certain policies and government actions are essential. According to " Agenda 2003" ( agenda.heritage.org), The Heritage Foundation's latest policy guide, they include:

  • Increasing defense spending to restore the strength of America's military and prepare it for an unpredictable future. The nation can easily afford to spend approximately $450 billion (about 4 percent) of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Currently, the nation spends barely more than 3 percent of its GDP for defense. The increase is well below levels during, say, World War II or even the Vietnam War, and will fulfill all of the nation's defense needs.

  • Deploying our forces more intelligently. The United States continues to invest funds and resources in missions that do not advance our vital interests, such as the Balkans peace-keeping mission. This waste of resources is even more damaging today because funds and forces are being diverted to nonessential missions at a time when the war on terrorism requires new technologies, more forces and additional funding.

  • Reducing or halting major investments in the production of some conventional weapons if they draw away funds from other defense priorities. For example, the Defense Department is slated to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming years on short-range fighter aircraft, with no plans to acquire new long-range bombers. While America's fighter force does need to be modernized, some of that would be better spent on bombers and unmanned aircraft.

Congress should work with the Defense Department to eliminate waste and re-invest the funds they save in the Pentagon. While progress has been made here, numerous other opportunities exist. Policy-makers should take them-because America's security and freedom is worth the price.


- Jack Spencer is a senior policy analyst for defense and national security at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity

Related Issues: Federal Budget