One of the sleeper issues President Obama will need to address
soon is how much to spend on national defense. Scarcely discussed
in the campaign, defense spending is arguably the most important
long-term decision a president makes. At stake is not only the
short-term safety of Americans, but the ability of the United
States to remain a world leader.
Today, there is an emerging mismatch between annual defense
budgets and long-term defense requirements. The disparity is rooted
in unwise decisions made in the 1990s by Congress and the Clinton
During that period´s "peace dividend," the administration
took a holiday from procuring new weapons and modernizing many
weapons systems. The size of the armed force shrunk, and the
process of replacing old systems with new ones decelerated. Though
many technical innovations have been added in recent years, the
armed force today is much smaller. Compared with the late 1980s,
the Air Force has some 2,500 fewer aircraft and the Navy fleet has
less than half the number of ships.
Did we not need a larger force, you ask, when we faced the
formidable threat from the Soviet Union? Put aside for the moment
how much military force is still needed to deter Russia and other
large powers; the fact remains that, while we never fought the USSR
in a hot war, we are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and
undertaking other military operations -- countering terrorists in
the Philippines and Horn of Africa, for example. Today´s
smaller force is being asked to do more than a much larger Cold War
force was asked to do after Vietnam.
All this use takes a toll on the readiness and quality of the
force. Fatigued by nearly 30 years of service, F-15 fighter
aircraft are cracking up and falling from the skies. In 2007, a
sizeable portion of the Navy´s aging maritime patrol
aircraft, the P-3, was grounded for wing repairs. The National
Guard shows real signs of exhaustion, forced to cannibalize
equipment at home to support deployments in Iraq.
The biggest long-term budgetary challenge to our armed force is
exploding entitlement spending. In fiscal 2008, only 30 percent of
the federal budget was discretionary -- i.e., not mandated for
entitlement programs. This compares with more than 65 percent of
the budget allocated for discretionary programs in 1965. If the
forecast rate of growth in entitlement spending is maintained,
unless the government massively increases taxes or reduces domestic
spending, the U.S. will have nothing left for defense by 2041.
Experts at the Heritage Foundation estimate that maintaining an
armed force capable of defending America requires spending at least
4 percent of the nation´s gross domestic product (GDP) on
defense for at least the next five years. Some members of Congress
agree; they are introducing legislation specifically recommending a
4 percent base line for defense.
This is not some number pulled out of thin air; it is based on
an objective analysis of how much it will cost to build and
maintain the right kind of military force. By historical standards,
this level of spending is also affordable. It is roughly what
Americans spend each year on leisure travel or on entertainment and
food away from home.
Some politicians think that we could spend less on defense if we
just eliminated "unnecessary" weapon systems. Unfortunately, the
easy choices have already been made, by postponing modernization.
The Pentagon faces a $100 billion annual shortfall in its
procurement and modernization accounts. 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
comprehensive military edge by skipping or delaying the
construction of the next generation of modern weapons.
The economic recession may make meeting a 4 percent commitment
politically more difficult, but only because we have not yet had an
honest debate about where most government spending has been going.
Since 1990, domestic discretionary spending has grown nearly twice
as fast as spending on defense and homeland security. The billions
more committed to bailouts and stimulus packages will only widen
that gap. If budget cutters want to find money to offset spending
increases, they should go where the growth is - and it is not in
A word of caution. More defense spending is needed, but not as a
jobs program, as some defense contractors recommend. That would be
bad economics (there are more productive ways to stimulate the
economy, like reducing taxes). It also would be a misappropriation
of public funds.
We should spend only as much as we need to defend ourselves --
no more and no less.
First Appeared in The Washington Times
One of the sleeper issues President Obama will need to address soon is how much to spend on national defense. Scarcely discussed in the campaign, defense spending is arguably the most important long-term decision a president makes. At stake is not only the short-term safety of Americans, but the ability of the United States to remain a world leader.
Protect America Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.
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