How can the U.S. afford to spend 4 percent of GDP on
defense if there is an economic recession?
Traditionally, America has spent more than 4 percent of
its GDP on defense-in bad and good economic times. So there's no
question about affordability.
The question implies that defense is the best place to start
cutting if economic woes force Congress to reduce federal
spending. That's both inaccurate and unfair. The
question also implies that poor economic performance is unaffected
by government policy.
The Heritage Foundation has recommended an overall economic
policy, which accounts for the 4 percent commitment to defense,
that is designed to promote higher economic growth. This broader
policy recognizes that the United States will cease to be a
superpower if its economy declines. The Soviet Union demonstrated
the devastating effects of a bad economy on military strength in
the 1980s, which took place in the context of frantic attempts by
the Soviet government to sustain high levels of defense
expenditures in the face of chronic economic decline.
Providing for the national defense is one of the few duties that
the Constitution assigns to the federal government. If cuts
are necessary, Congress should look first to the
non-constitutionally required "extras" that eat up the vast
majority of the federal budget.
The economic policy recommended by The Heritage Foundation
insists on restraining the projected growth in overall federal
spending. Objective analysis points to the fact that reductions in
spending growth should be made first in non-essential programs and
then among the programs that are responsible for driving the budget
The culprit here is not defense. Since 1990, domestic
discretionary spending has grown nearly twice as fast as spending
on defense and homeland security (62 percent v. 33 percent).
This is where Congress should "look first" when eyeing ways to pare
spending. Heritage also recognizes that restraining the growth in
spending on domestic programs will permit the lower tax rates that
will sustain higher levels of economic growth.
What happens if we commit to spending 4 percent on
defense and the threats change?
The Heritage Foundation calculated the 4 percent requirement on
a capabilities-based approach. This way the military will have what
it needs to deal with a wide variety of contingencies, many of
which will be impossible to predict. Using the capabilities-based
approach will give the military the inherent flexibility to respond
to rapidly changing threat assessments.
Generally speaking, changes in the threat assessment come in two
forms. The first is an advance in military technology made by
potential enemies of the United States. The 4 percent benchmark is
designed to increase funding for the research and development and
procurement accounts in order for the U.S. military to remain the
most technologically advanced in the world. Thus, the 4 percent
benchmark is specifically designed to address this kind change in
the threat assessment through the capabilities-based approach.
The second form is an unfolding of international events that
would lead to operational requirements that were not previously
anticipated. The 4 percent benchmark specifically excludes funding
for these requirements. Rather, it anticipates that in the
future-as in the past-that increased operational requirements will
be funded through supplemental appropriations.
Why can't the services just make hard choices and
eliminate Cold War relic programs to free up additional cash to pay
The military has been making hard budgetary choices for the last
15 years. That's because Congress chose to expand politically
popular domestic programs by cashing a Cold War "peace
dividend." As a result, the Pentagon was forced to cut troop
strength and reduce its air and naval fleets. Most importantly, the
military services procurement accounts for buying new weapons and
equipment were reduced substantially in the 1990s.
Congress has started to recognize the problems created by years
of underfunding the military. They are now requiring the Army
and Marines to increase their end strength. On the other
hand, funding levels for the procurement accounts have only started
to recover. Today, the Pentagon faces a $100 billion annual
shortfall in its procurement and modernization accounts.
Eliminating that shortfall will require a sustained investment at 4
percent of GDP. Absent that level of investment, the U.S. military
will lose the technological edge that empowers service men and
women to defend the nation with a minimum of American-and
non-combatant-causalities. Given this reality, politicians
should know better than to refer to "choices" or options which the
military no longer has.
- Why can't we just eliminate all the fraud, waste, and
abuse in the Department of Defense (DoD)? 4 percent
funding level will be enough to meet the nation's core defense
needs only if both Congress and the DoD bend every effort to
eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. In this context, however, it is
important to recognize why there is wasteful spending in the first
place. Only occasionally is it is the result of the Department's
malfeasance, although these instances are highlighted in the press.
The real problem is systemic.
Defense Secretary Gates' four immediate predecessors all
campaigned to reduce waste and improve procurement
practices. Yet throughout those campaigns, the budgetary
shortfall continued to grow-during Democratic and Republican
Administrations alike. This is indicative of the fact that
Congress has failed to modify its oversight functions and ease the
legislative requirements that have resulted in an overly
bureaucratic and inefficient management system at the DoD. Altering
these requirements will be a long process because Congress's
incentive to change its practices is limited. Taking these steps
would reduce Congress's power to second-guess every decision made
at the DoD.
Given this reality, it is wrong to ask that the overall military
capabilities of the United States be permitted to atrophy and the
DoD be penalized because of Congress's failure to act. While
pressing Congress to make needed reforms, it is unavoidably the
case that the DoD must be funded on the basis of the legislative
system that is in place now.
Why don't America's allies just pick up more of the
They should. And if they do, the United States could safely
adjust the 4 percent figure downward. But that day
is not yet on the horizon. The U.S. should not let the remote
possibility that its allies will suddenly start pulling their
weight be an excuse for continuing to underfund the needs
of its own military. In fact, decisions by the United States to
reduce funding for its military make it all the more likely that
the allies of the United States will undertake another round of
defense funding reductions.
As the current Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee,
Representative Ike Skelton (D-MO), has aptly stated, "To depend on
allies to carry out our strategy is the height of folly." In terms
of meeting the overall military needs of the free world, the United
States will have to lead by example.
How can the U.S. military possibly need more money when
it already spends more today than during World War II?
Actually, as a percentage of GDP, America today spends a small
fraction on defense compared to what it spent during World War
Moreover, the nature of warfare, America's obligations, and the
culture of the military have undergone the following changes that
make the comparison inappropriate:
* Today's military employs expensive technological weapons
systems that offer significant battlefield advantages-not the least
of which is a dramatic reduction in both civilian casualties and
American military casualties.
* The United States relies on an all-volunteer force that is
more expensive than the conscripted armies of World War II.
* Finally, America's objective now is to deter as well as
to win conflicts. To deter conflict, it must sustain its strength
at a level that guarantees success in the event an engagement
does occur-during peacetime and times of conflict.
- If the all-volunteer force is strained and expensive,
why not just institute a draft?
First, the all-volunteer force has become so established
that instituting a draft would radically disrupt the culture
of the military, threaten the critical skills that are
necessary to defend the country, and risk undermining
capability. Second, policymakers should not conscript
tens of thousands of America's young people, taking away several
years of their lives, just to avoid increasing defense expenditures
by three- or four-tenths of 1 percent. The shortfall in funding is
substantial, but nowhere near large enough to justify such a
sacrifice of freedom on the part of so many people.
Why not simply eliminate unproven weapons systems like
missile defense to meet the military's needs?
Eliminating "unproven" weapons systems means eliminating any new
system. Sealing the military off from technological advancements is
no way to prepare to meet future risks.
As for missile defense, it's needed now more than ever. The
number of "nuclear" nations has grown from nine countries in 1972
to 27 as of the fall of 2007. Extensive war-gaming has shown that
in such a widely proliferated world, missile defense serves to
stabilize international relations, reducing the risk of nuclear
Why 4 percent of GDP on defense? Why not more or
Defending America may well require more. Indeed, several
well-informed lawmakers, as well as defense-savvy
organizations-such as the Military Officers Association of America,
The Military Coalition, Aerospace Industries Association, The Navy
League, and American Enterprise Institute-have all called for a
commitment of 4 percent or more.
Heritage has documented a huge funding shortfall of at least
$100 billion per year which, if added to current estimates for
the core defense budget, would bring that budget up to
approximately 4 percent of the GDP. By setting 4 percent of
GDP as a floor for the defense budget, Heritage gives the public a
bright line test for holding Congress and the President accountable
for meeting their constitutional responsibility to provide for the
Why can't the services just tell Congress and the
President what they need, and then let them figure out how much it
would cost to meet these requirements?
The services can and will do that. The problem is that when
political authorities underfund the military, defense authorities
rarely object. Why? Because the Chiefs of Staff do not
like to publicly criticize their political masters.
The 4 percent floor is the best way to assure accountability
because, as the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs have already said, that is the minimum the United States
will need to spend in the foreseeable future to protect
How can the United States justify spending more than the
rest of the world combined on defense, even if it is only 4 percent
of its Gross Domestic Product?
Since World War II, the United States has assumed the
leadership role in protecting the security of its treaty allies
and preserving freedom. In places like the Korean Peninsula,
the Taiwan Strait, the Sea of Japan, and Eastern Europe, the
presence of U.S. forces helps to ensure the continuation of peace.
America's Navy and Coast Guard also patrol throughout the world's
vast oceans, assuring the free flow of goods in a global economy.
For more than 60 years, the U.S. has undertaken-and met-these
international obligations, no matter which political party held
sway in Washington. The U.S. cannot reduce its defense spending
without substantially abandoning these obligations.
Most importantly, the United States has not assumed these
obligations just for altruistic reasons. These obligations have
empowered America to control its destiny in a dangerous world.
Relinquishing these obligations is a gamble that places America's
future in the hands of other powers, which may or may not share the
values upon which the United States was founded.
Finally, it is important to consider the hidden costs of
military weakness. Absent U.S. leadership, the resulting global
instability could lead to another major war, far more costly to
America and others than a sustained 4 percent
investment. Moreover, the country would be in a position of
sending servicemen and women into battle with consciously inferior
material and support.
- Why do we need to spend more on defense?
As currently constituted, the American military cannot possibly
obtain the capabilities it needs to respond to unexpected or
unpredictable threats-much less to meet every demand America has
asked it to perform over the last decade.
America's Air Force, for example, is far too old. The average
age of planes in the fleet has soared from nine in 1973 to 24
years old today. Many planes are older than their pilots. In short,
policymakers are telling the Air Force to do more with less.
The story is much the same for the Navy, which has pressing
modernization requirements. Though Congress has approved building a
modern fleet of 326 ships by 2020, it has approved spending that
falls at least $5 billion short per year of what's needed to make
that fleet a reality. Today, the Navy has 276 hulls.
Meanwhile, the active-duty Army, which had 18 divisions at the
end of the Cold War, currently consists of only 10 divisions. The
past six years have showed that the Army needs to be large enough
to sustain large-scale operations without having to deploy the same
units multiple times or extend their deployments over the duration
of the mission. Further, the Army needs to equip its force
with new weapons to meet it mission requirements in the future.