November 6, 2015 | Backgrounder on National Security and Defense
While the recent budget agreement provides some stability for national security spending for the near future, debates about the appropriateness of that funding level will continue. Regrettably, many common arguments for cutting national security spending are unhelpful or faulty. Americans should understand (1) where the arguments for cutting national security spending fall short, (2) how national security spending can be better understood, and (3) what the U.S. should spend on national security.
Determining how much the United States should spend on national security is a challenging task. If the U.S. spends too little on national security, potential threats may become realities, costing American blood and treasure. If the U.S. spends too much, the misallocation of resources will add to the debt placed on future generations. This is a difficult balance to strike, and a robust public debate should be expected.
The recently enacted Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 increased the spending cap for national security for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, but the debate about the sufficiency of this funding level will continue. The increased national security funding level remains below President Obama’s request for FY 2016 and below the level recommended by a Heritage Foundation expert.
While the budget debate continues, Americans should be concerned about the state of the U.S. military. The Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength assessed that America’s ability to defend itself and its interests is only “marginal” while the global threat level is “elevated.” Given the stakes, Americans need to understand where the arguments for cutting national security spending fall short.
Argument #1: “The United States spends more than the next seven countries combined.” This is perhaps the most common argument used to support claims that the U.S. spends too much on national security. It is also not a particularly helpful argument for four reasons:
Argument #2: “Defense spending has grown too much in recent years.” Variations of this argument are used regularly with numerous time frames and numbers. One example claimed “explosive increases in military spending since 9/11.” Another talked about a “165% increase between 1998 and 2011” in military spending, and a third argued that defense spending “has doubled since 2001.” All of these numbers are very different if understood in the proper context. Comparing national security spending with non-defense spending, putting it in the context of gross domestic product (GDP) and total government spending, or even just adjusting for inflation produces a much different picture.
Argument #3: “The national debt is the biggest security threat.” Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen made this statement regularly when he was the top U.S. military officer, and he has continued to repeat it in retirement. However, when asked about the greatest dangers to the United States, Mullen identifies nuclear weapons and cyberwarfare as the two existential threats facing the U.S. today. The U.S. national debt is one of the most serious issues facing our nation, but it does not constitute a national security threat, and it does not mean the U.S. should stop spending on national security for several reasons:
Argument #4: “We have more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined.” Other variations of this argument include the size of the U.S. Air Force and the number of ships in the U.S. Navy. These statistics may be true, but are not a sound reason to cut investment in the U.S. military:
Argument #5: “We are fighting terrorists in pickup trucks, not other nations.” Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has not faced the same sort of existential security threat. Fighting terrorists should be cheaper than fighting the Soviet Union. Once again, the truth is tougher:
Argument #6: “The military wastes so much money, so Congress should just cut its budget.” The DOD certainly has wasteful spending that should be eliminated. However, finding and eliminating this wasteful spending takes strong oversight. Indiscriminately cutting budgets is self-defeating and counterproductive. Waste, fraud, and abuse need to be rooted out, but doing so takes hard work.
Many Americans would be surprised by how little federal spending actually goes to national security. In FY 2015, the national security budget will encompass only 15.8 percent of total federal spending. As a share of total public spending, which includes the budgets of state and local governments, national security is only 10.4 percent.
National security spending will account for only 3.3 percent of the U.S. economy (measured in GDP) in 2015.
When the numbers are this large, putting them in perspective can be difficult. Here are a few ways to compare national security spending with other items:
These comparisons are helpful only to a degree. The spending choices of free citizens are very different from the federal government’s ability to tax, borrow, and spend.
International trade plays a vital role in the U.S. economy. In 2013, the U.S. exported goods and services totaled $2.3 trillion, roughly 13 percent of U.S. GDP. According to one study, 38 million American jobs are connected to international trade. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 90 percent of world trade by volume travels by sea. U.S. foreign trade accounted for 15 percent of the global total of sea-borne trade in 2011. Much of that sea-borne trade travels through choke points, such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Panama Canal.
The importance of international trade to the U.S. economy is one reason that the U.S. maintains the ability to project military power around the world. A conflict in the South China Sea or an attempt to blockade the Strait of Hormuz would significantly harm the U.S. and its allies.
Since the implementation of the Budget Control Act in 2011, the base budget for national security has been cut by 15 percent in real dollars. If overseas operations are included, the national security budget has dropped by 25 percent. While U.S. national security spending is declining, the threats around the world are increasing and proliferating.
While the United States is dramatically cutting national security spending, other countries are not necessarily following along. One helpful way to look at defense spending of other countries is by region.
Chart 5 is in inflation-adjusted dollars, so flat lines mean steady spending over time. The chart clearly shows that military spending is rising in certain countries. China’s military spending is increasing dramatically. According to one estimate, China’s inflation-adjusted military spending has increased by more than 300 percent from 2001 to 2014. Russia is also on a clearly upward trend. From 2001 to 2014, Russia’s inflation-adjusted military spending went up by over 170 percent. Budget data on Iran are tricky, but the available data seem to indicate increased spending. At the same time, American allies in Europe and Asia are not increasing their military spending in real terms. The only friendly country that is increasing its military spending is Saudi Arabia, probably in response to Iran.
The U.S. national security budget should be based on the answers to three key questions: What vital interests must America protect, what are the threats against those interests, and then how best can America protect those interests from the threats? While a full discussion of these questions is outside the scope of this paper, answers to the third question lead directly to a national security budget.
One answer to the third question is that America needs a military capable of fighting and winning two major regional contingencies. Both The Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength and the 2014 report of the bipartisan National Defense Panel conclude that this is the right concept for building the U.S. military. The Index assessed that the U.S. does not currently have the military force to do this and that the current U.S. military capability is only “marginal.” The Index also assessed the global threat level as “elevated” and concluded that the threats from China and Russia are “high” and the threat from North Korea is “severe.”
For FY 2016, a Heritage Foundation paper recommended spending $584 billion on national security, 4 percent above the President’s request of $561 billion and 7 percent above the Bipartian Budget Act cap of $548 billion. Even at $584 billion, national security is not fully funded. It will take a number of years of strong budgets to restore America’s military power.
The debate about the U.S. national security budget often devolves into issues that are not actually relevant to U.S. national security. Comparing U.S. fleet size or military budgets against other countries is an interesting analytical exercise, but not a rational basis for budget determinations. Many of these arguments do not make sense upon closer inspection.
Instead, the U.S. should build its national security budget based on a coherent strategy that realistically assesses the threats to the nation and its commitments and interests abroad.—Justin T. Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense Budgeting Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. Carl Best, an intern at The Heritage Foundation, contributed to this paper.
 This paper was written before the Bipartisan Budget Agreement was announced and before final defense authorization and appropriations bills for FY 2016 were enacted. Unless otherwise noted, all current U.S. budget numbers in this paper are FY 2015 enacted.
[ ] For the purposes of this paper, national security spending is defined as Office of Management and Budget budget function 050, which includes the Department of Defense, the nuclear weapons portions of the Department of Energy, the intelligence community, roughly half of the FBI’s budget, and a few other defense-related budget lines. Department of Defense spending is defined as budget subfunction 051.
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