"Five times in the last 90 years, the United States has disarmed
after a conflict: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and
then the Cold War," testified Defense Secretary Robert Gates on
Capitol Hill in March.
Will Iraq make six?
The chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee,
John Murtha, D-Pa., recently predicted as much. He snapped his
fingers for effect and said he expected procurement funding would
dry up once the Iraq war ends. Unfortunately, political pressure to
reduce defense spending overall is growing. A general perception
holds that the battle in Iraq constitutes the entirety of the war
effort, so when major combat operations there wind down, the
American people would be entitled to a new peace dividend.
Here's the difference: The last five times we demobilized after
a war, we'd mobilized first.
The Iraq war was not only fought without prior mobilization, but
it followed a decadelong procurement holiday. If our country cuts
the defense budget now without considering America's worldwide
responsibilities or the likely geopolitical landscape the U.S. will
face over the next five to 10 years, we're setting ourselves up for
disaster. That's especially true because the U.S. does not spend
enough today to meet its security commitments beyond Iraq.
America's interests span the world, and the military has global
reach and responsibilities. The primary purpose of the U.S.
military is to deter and defend the homeland. When required,
America's military must fight and win wars to protect our security
interests. Success requires a military capable of defeating
traditional threats posed by nation-states, transnational threats
such as terrorist organizations and organized crime, as well as
dangers derived from state collapse, such as piracy. We can't just
pick which enemies we want to fight in the future or "threat-away"
challenges by ignoring potential future conflicts.
Employing military power involves successful direct action as
well as engagement and the presence of U.S. forces abroad. It's
everything from a show of force to power projection and also
includes training indigenous military elements. U.S. forces also
provide protection for America's friends and allies and bolster
their military capabilities. We maintain a substantial deterrent
force on the Korean peninsula, have overseen Japanese security for
the past half-century and uphold security guarantees to Taiwan.
Similarly, in the Middle East, the U.S. military presence
contained the expansive ambitions of Saddam Hussein, decapitated
the belligerent leadership of Iraq and Afghanistan, conducted
nation-building aimed at helping these two countries on the path
toward modernity, ensured continued access to affordable petroleum
for itself and the global economy, committed to the protection of
Saudi Arabia, and balanced against the unpredictable actions of
Iran following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.
Further, America's nuclear weapons and missile defenses act not
only as deterrents against and protection from attack, but also
serve to alleviate the concerns of our allies so they do not have
to develop their own potentially destabilizing strategic
In addition, America's military does more than fight. Because
U.S. economic growth is connected to the stability and prosperity
of the global economy, the nation uses its naval capabilities to
protect sea trade, thereby ensuring all maritime assets may transit
freely and safely. Eighty percent of international trade and 67
percent of petroleum is transported by sea; fully one-quarter of
global trade passes through the Strait of Malacca alone, and
one-third of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) is derived from
Additionally, when humanitarian disaster strikes, a strong
military enables policymakers to commit our country's unique and
vast resources to assist the country in need, such as after the
2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean and following a devastating
earthquake in Pakistan in 2005.
Critics of America's defense spending often point to the size of
its defense budget compared with global spending in an effort to
argue for reducing America's hard-power capabilities. The U.S.
defense budget in real dollars is on par with spending by the rest
of the world combined. Many question how such a massive budget can
be justified, even during wartime. The Cold War may be over, but
the U.S. still has global interests and global responsibilities,
and they cannot be protected on the cheap.
Those who have argued that America's defense budget is too large
also protest that it could be reduced if only our allies would
invest their fair share. It is true that the defense budgets of
European and even some Asian powers are on the decline, but as Rep.
Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee,
has argued, "To depend on allies to carry out our strategy is the
height of folly." While it would be a positive development if
France, Germany and Japan were to spend more, America cannot reduce
its own budget while compromising security in the hope that others
will fill the void. If allies were to increase defense budgets,
America could consider adjusting its own. Until then, it is
irresponsible to cut spending while crossing fingers and hoping for
Strategy always changes faster than force structure. Paring
defense budgets to what Washington wishes to spend can be justified
by adopting a more modest and restrained strategy. When demands
change, as happened with the outbreak of the Korean War, strategy
can be modified -- but it may take years to field forces adequate
to implement abrupt changes. In the meantime, the cost of being
unprepared is often measured in the lives of men and women in the
armed forces and the national security of the nation put at risk.
Because every potential threat cannot be predicted and because
procurement cycles typically take decades to field a particular
system, the U.S. military must plan its forces around a grand
strategy and hedge with specific capabilities to meet any future
requirement. Those core capabilities -- many of which are possessed
today -- should be the mainstays of strategic planning. They
include protecting and defending the U.S. and its allies against
attack; air dominance; maritime control; space control;
counterterrorism; counterinsurgency; the ability to seize and
control territory against organized ground forces; projecting power
to distant regions; and information dominance throughout
To anticipate and cope with a shifting strategic environment,
the U.S. must continue to have the most highly skilled and
professional military force, equipped with the most capable weapons
systems. America's robust military budget allows the development of
unchallenged capabilities that provide numerous benefits. These
capabilities are not immune to atrophy, age, budget cuts or apathy
and require steady investments in next-generation platforms to
maintain the advantage of unchallenged military capabilities.
As a percentage of GDP, American defense spending is
historically and relatively low. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has
spent about 3.8 percent of its GDP on defense. That's well below
the 5.7 percent we averaged over the last 40 years. This includes
the 1990s' "procurement holiday," from which today's military has
not yet fully recovered.
Defense budgets are projected to fall dangerously low within
five years. The Bush administration's current budget proposal shows
the defense budget declining to 3.2 percent of GDP by 2012. That
would not be enough to meet military requirements, even if we enjoy
robust economic growth.
While the defense budget is indeed substantial in real dollars,
it matches the current and future global responsibilities of the
U.S. To adequately provide for the common defense and secure
America's vital interests, Congress should commit to funding the
core defense budget at roughly today's levels of 4 percent of GDP
for the next 10 years. The sum of America's global
responsibilities, and the costs to fully equip, train and
compensate a professional all-volunteer force, require today's
Peace rebate redux
Banking on an end to the ideological struggles that defined the
20th century, the Clinton administration -- with the full
enablement of a Republican-led Congress -- chose to cash in on a
peace dividend. Starting in 1992, drastic cuts to military end
strength and recapitalization that skipped an entire generation of
weapons were so dramatic and severe their effects are still felt
today, even with real dollar increases in the defense budget since
The active-duty Army was slashed from 18 divisions during
Operation Desert Storm to 10 today, although it's now growing
again. The Army began the Iraq war with a $50 billion equipment
shortfall and must recapitalize or replace nearly its entire fleet
of vehicles. The Navy, which consisted of almost 600 ships at the
end of the Reagan administration, struggles to sustain a fleet of
280 today. While spending a recent average of $12 billion per year
on shipbuilding, the Navy's current modernization plans actually
require spending a minimum $17 billion for the next 30 years to
reach a 313-ship fleet. The average age of Marine Corps helicopters
is 25 years. While the Pentagon bought an average of 238 fighter
aircraft each year from 1975 to 1990, it bought only 28 per year
from 1991 to 2000. The Air Force must plug the dramatic fighter
gap, purchase more next-generation fighters, meet its growing
strategic airlift requirement, build a new tanker and develop an
interdiction bomber to replace the B-52, an aircraft almost 50
However, the greatest irony of the post-Cold War budget cuts is
that as America's military force was reduced, the tempo at which it
America's military could soon pay a heavy price for any replay
of the 1990s' peace dividend. Except this time, there is a gap
between the perceived and actual pace of peacetime operations. U.S.
leaders are employing the military at a breakneck pace. During the
Cold War, the Pentagon took part in more than 50 operations.
Alternatively, since the Gulf War 17 years ago, the military has
engaged in almost 100 operations. Over the past 15 years, the U.S.
has asked its service members to do much more with less of
Funding for immediate operations has come at the expense of the
long-term health of the services. Each service must purchase new
systems after years of procurement underfunding while major combat
operations persist. There is little justification that these urgent
spending priorities are unnecessary or they can be delayed further.
The current military procurement budget is about $81.3 billion. A
Congressional Budget Office study in October 2006 predicted the
Pentagon may need as much as $80 billion more in 2008 alone to
afford current programs, pay personnel and fund ongoing operations.
When the services must choose between equally important priorities
to pay for short-term operations or force service members to incur
increased and unnecessary risks, the nation is not spending enough
The current, substantial commitment of U.S. forces in Iraq alone
will require a massive program to recapitalize and replace
equipment. While the operational tempo of the U.S. military during
this larger war will vary over time, the conflict will require a
generally elevated tempo. The search for a peace dividend is
unwarranted because the global war on terrorism goes beyond Iraq.
The climbing average age of ships, aircraft, vehicles and many
other weapons systems and platforms increases risk for all of the
services while reducing their ability to execute their missions. No
rational justification exists for reduced defense spending in the
Matching the mismatch
Maintaining a predictable level of core defense spending for the
next five to 10 years at roughly today's levels would allow
America's war fighters to maintain and build up the capacity to
meet the full spectrum of irregular and conventional missions to
counter today's enemies and tomorrow's unforeseen challenges. A
lack of predictability in defense funding only increases the costs
of nearly all major programs. One key to controlling the price of
ships, planes, vehicles and other equipment is to minimize
fluctuations in the defense budget.
Arguing that the U.S. military should instead focus on irregular
threats and refining counterinsurgency skills, shifting from
conventional skills and building weapons to counter current threats
is a zero-sum exercise. The military must be able to counter myriad
threats and possess unmatched capabilities in varying contingencies
that are not prioritized one over the other. A deliberate
assessment of the likelihood of potential threats and enemies is
required before procuring the appropriate capabilities to prevail
in future conventional and irregular conflict. Because the lead
time on development and procurement -- including training on new
systems -- takes years, if not decades, the U.S. military must
often hedge when making budgeting decisions.
Funding for the future cannot be gauged on a series of
high-stakes bets. The military does not have the luxury of focusing
solely on conventional and state versus unconventional and nonstate
actors. The U.S. military needs not only the most capable equipment
but also a sufficient number of weapons systems and suppliers to
meet national security requirements.
Avoiding budget spikes affords more than platforms, however; it
provides stability in defense planning and offers a steadier
workload for those constructing them. When budget requests change
so dramatically year to year -- particularly when requirements stay
the same -- the industrial base cannot plan ahead, and this
increases the cost of individual systems. The national security of
the U.S. is well-served by a competitive industrial base, and
defense budget predictability will contribute to this effort.
Spending 4 percent of GDP on defense still would be well below
what America has spent during the past 40 years. Although it is
true that defense spending in actual dollars has increased
substantially in the past decade, as a percentage of our economy,
it has continued to decline to historically low levels. Today's
defense budget also represents a manageable level of spending that
is consistent with government policies that promote economic
growth. Unfortunately, when cuts to the federal budget are
considered necessary, it is the defense budget that is most often
targeted. In reality, the main culprit of federal budget growth
over the past two decades has been domestic discretionary spending,
which has grown at nearly twice the rate of defense and homeland
security spending. Reforming these programs, so as to balance the
priorities of the federal budget, should be a primary issue for
In the past two years, a consensus has begun to emerge within
the defense community to maintain today's levels of defense
spending at 4 percent of GDP for the foreseeable future. During
budget hearings in February 2007, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen.
Peter Schoomaker told members of Congress that the Army will
continue to need billions of dollars for at least three years after
Iraq operations wind down in order to repair and replace equipment
damaged during operations. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T.
Michael Moseley clearly stated there should be a national debate
about robust and sustained defense spending. The Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told the Christian Science
Monitor in March: "I really do believe this 4 percent floor is ...
really important, given the world we're living in, given the
threats that we see out there, the risks that are, in fact, global,
not just in the Middle East." Gates said he believes that once war
funding is passed as part of the baseline defense budget, Congress
should dedicate 4 percent of GDP to funding national security.
Congress has begun to engage in a thoughtful debate about the
responsibilities of the American military and the resources
required to meet these responsibilities, yet more must be done. A
joint resolution (H.J. Res. 67 and S.J. Res. 26) introduced last
year by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Sen. Elizabeth Dole,
R-N.C., seeks to fund America's military at roughly today's levels.
Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., introduced an amendment to Section 1070 of
the fiscal 2009 Defense Authorization Act (HR 5658) that sought to
encapsulate the spirit of this legislation. Unfortunately, it was
not included in the House defense authorization bill.
The notion that the U.S. can spend an amount on its national
security on par with the world's other advanced states is
inconsistent with the realities of America's responsibilities.
Absent U.S. leadership, the world is more inclined to a path where
conflict and disorder threaten the security and economic vitality
of all nations. To sustain security and stature, the U.S. must
continue to invest the necessary resources in its military to fully
equip, arm and train the all-volunteer force to meet its complete
range of mission requirements. Preserving these capabilities will
allow America to secure its national interests while continuing to
meet its responsibilities to the security of allies and
preservation of the global free market.
The military is in a crucial phase of recapitalization. The
war-related bills will come due for years after a majority of U.S.
forces are withdrawn from Iraq, yet supplemental spending bills
surely will disappear. There is no appetite to absorb the
supplemental spending into the larger defense budget. In the long
term, continuing to underfund defense and then allowing wild
fluctuations in defense budgets during times of war will only cost
the country more and compromise security at home and on the
battlefield, including reducing the defense industrial base to an
unacceptably low level. An undercapitalized base is less
competitive, which serves to increase costs for the government and
The challenge is not the resolution of the American people.
Rather, it is a matter of communicating national defense
requirements and core objectives to policymakers and the general
public. A disconnect exists between the civilian population and the
day-to-day obstacles facing America's military. Many Americans may
not perceive the same current or future threats as defense leaders,
making them unable to properly approve the types of capabilities
the military must possess.
Members of Congress, the president and presidential candidates
should undertake the difficult task of changing public opinion --
not following it -- by reminding the American people that the
ongoing war is not over and that the stakes in this war extend to
their lives, liberty and future prosperity. For these reasons,
Congress and the president must commit to fund the nation's
military requirements well into the future. The next president and
future Congresses also must commit to providing for the nation's
defense through sustained robust defense budgets.
is Senior Policy Analyst for National Security at The Heritage