Cut defense spending because...?

Here we go again. An editorial last week in Bloomberg View argued for steep cuts in national security spending. While much of the editorial supported important reform efforts that will be carried in the National Defense Authorization Act, it never bothered to explain why the spending cuts are necessary.

Indeed, the only rationale offered was the observation that national security spending “has doubled since 2001.” Apparently, we’re to take this as sufficient proof that security spending “urgently needs to be brought under control.” It isn’t.

Defense spending went up after 2001 for a reason. The American public expected a response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and an increased defense budget was a necessary part of that response.

Even outside the context of 9/11 and the response it required, the defense budget in 2001 was dangerously low. Americans had been told that the end of the Cold War had ushered in a new era of peace, that history had ended and we could cash the “peace dividends” indefinitely. Post-Cold War national security spending, measured in 2014 dollars, bottomed out in 1998, and by 2001 it had barely moved. 9/11 jolted Americans out of this fantasy, but even if it had never happened, the dangerous realities of geopolitics would have reasserted themselves in another way.

But defense spending is not the only thing that has grown since 2001. From 2001 through 2015, the federal government’s social and economic spending increased far more than national security spending. Using inflation-adjusted dollars, social and economic spending programs soared by 61 percent between 2001 and 2015. During the same period national security spending rose 38 percent. Moreover, national security spending is a small part of total government spending. The Department of Defense went from 16 percent of total federal spending in 2001 to a peak of 21 percent in 2007. This year, it’s back down to 15 percent.

It may also be helpful to consider government spending in terms of the size of the nation’s economy. As a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), total national defense spending went from 3 percent of GDP in 1998, to 2.9 percent in 2001, to a high of 4.7 percent in 2010, down to an estimated 3.3 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, spending on the rest of the federal government has grown from 14.7 percent of GDP in 2001 to 17.6 percent of GDP in 2015.

A closer look at the numbers shows us that claims that defense spending is “out of control” and needs to be “reined in” ring hollow and stale. Spending decisions should be driven by reality, not rhetoric.

Our national security budget should be based on a sober assessment of what it will take to meet our national security needs now and in the foreseeable future. That’s not happening now. The Heritage Foundation’s “2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength” assessed today’s military as being only marginally ready to protect our country and our vital interests.

Sorry, Bloomberg View, but to keep America safe going forward, we will need to increase our national security budget, not cut it mindlessly.

 - Justin T. Johnson is the senior analyst for defense budgeting policy in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for National Security and Foreign Policy.

About the Author

Justin T. Johnson Senior Policy Analyst for Defense Budgeting Policy
Center for National Defense

Originally appeared in War on the Rocks