By The Post-Standard Editorial Board
How big is the U.S. defense budget? The simple answer is: $695.7 billion.
Now consider: That is more than half the $1.19 trillion spent by the world’s 10 leading military powers in 2011 — far eclipsing No. 2 China ($120 billion), Japan ($60 billion), Great Britain ($59 billion), France ($53 billion) and Russia ($52.7 billion).
U.S. military spending is equivalent to the combined national budgets of Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ukraine and the Czech Republic.
Set aside spending for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense, and only 31 percent of the U.S. budget is left to pay for veterans benefits, housing, transportation, education, foreign aid, food safety, health and technology research, government operations and everything else — including interest on the $16 trillion national debt.
The Pentagon spends such stupefying sums each year that its accountants can’t even keep track. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admits his department “is the only major federal agency that cannot pass an audit today.” Try again in five years, he suggests.
But a nation with trillion-dollar annual deficits doesn’t have five years to get its Defense Department’s financial affairs in order. Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in 2011: “The single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.”
Some argue defense cuts would put U.S. troops in jeopardy, leave the nation vulnerable and project an image of weakness. During the presidential campaign, GOP hopeful Mitt Romney actually proposed increasing military spending.
But even the most enthusiastic hawks don’t argue that America must outspend everyone else combined to avoid looking weak — or that the United States must be every nation’s police force or military protector.
The year-end agreement reached between a re-elected President Barack Obama and a lame-duck Congress avoided automatic spending cuts totaling $109 billion this year that would have been spread evenly between defense and other programs. The agreement keeps tax cuts in place for those earning less than $400,000, so the real work of deficit reduction still lies head. If Congress and the president can’t reach agreement by March, the automatic spending cuts will kick in.
Insisting that all cuts come from non-military sources puts at risk the nation’s safety net programs and ignores a major source of savings that would not endanger national security. Obama has vowed to cut $487 billion in Pentagon spending over the coming decade, and challenges Congress to find $500 billion more. Even after that, he notes, the U.S. defense budget still will exceed the combined totals of the next 10 largest-spending nations.
Can the military adjust to these cuts? Sure. The war in Iraq is over and with any luck, Afghanistan will be a painful memory by next year. Obama aims to mold a nimble, adaptive military that is capable of defending the homeland and acting in concert with other nations, but not inclined to embark on unilateral missions. That means a smaller Army and Marine Corps but more Special Forces.
And it won’t cost taxpayers $695.7 billion a year.