There’s really no need for bigger military budgets.
By Lawrence J. Korb
The Republican victory in the 2014 midterm election has emboldened the defense hawks on the Hill. If you had just come down from Mars, you would think that the U.S. military was reeling, overstretched and overburdened, and in need of an urgent injection of tens billions of dollars to be able to perform its core missions. The crises around the world today, from the airstrikes against the Islamic State group to Russian aggression in Ukraine to Ebola in West Africa, are prompting calls to greatly increase defense spending, despite a base budget of just under a half a trillion dollars this year and a requested $59 billion in additional war funding.
Some in Congress are trying to use these crises to roll back the caps on defense spending agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, has argued that relying on Overseas Contingency Operations funds to address current crises is not enough, telling the Wall Street Journal that it “does not heal the wounds of the cuts.” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., also warned that “we need to start rebuilding right now. … This is a war – and you’ve got to win a war.” Even the independent National Defense Panel’s review of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review called the projected levels of defense spending “a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States,” which “has prompted our current and potential allies to question our commitment and resolve.” The panel recommends that at a minimum the U.S. defense budget needs at least $1 trillion more over the next decade.
These claims of scarily-small defense budgets are overblown. Many dire predictions focus on the 2011 caps on the defense budget, the “sequester” level. At these levels, in fiscal year 2019, the base Pentagon budget would be about $505 billion in today’s dollars. Defense budget hawks are bemoaning that it is much lower than recent defense spending (years during which we were engaged in major, costly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan).
What the hawks never mention is that this lamented $505 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget in fiscal year 2019 is about $50 billion higher than the fiscal year 2002 base defense budget and just $20 billion less than the base defense budget at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The National Defense Panel claims that today’s “small amount” of defense spending will make our military less capable than it was in the 1990s, when the threat was less severe. Really? In the 1990s, the Pentagon spent about $400 billion in today’s dollars. The extra $100 billion the defense budget should be more than enough to deal with the changing threat environment we face today.
All this bellyaching about the so-called paltry base defense budget also ignores that the Pentagon has had separate war funding to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, totaling hundreds of billions over and above the base budget. This year, the Pentagon asked for $59 billion, even though our presence in Afghanistan will be just under 10,000 troops next year and just under 2,000 in 2016. The Pentagon says it expects the war funding to persist for years, even though U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan at the end of 2016, penciling in $30 billion annually through fiscal year 2021.
Rest assured, terrified defense hawks: The U.S. still dominates global defense spending, far outpacing every other country. While China and Russia have increased their defense spending and capabilities, the U.S. still accounts for 40 percent of the world’s military expenditures. Including our allies, that figure rises to 80 percent of defense spending worldwide. If the nations that collectively spend eight out of every 10 global defense dollars cannot deal with the remaining two, then the U.S. and its allies have a bigger problem.
The defense budget hawks argue that strategy should guide budgets, not the other way around. When did that happen? Not under former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who funded the defense budget with the money left over after funding all of the other programs and balancing the federal budget. (As Eisenhower put it, military leaders need to strike the balance between the costly implements of war and the health of our economy.) Not in former President Ronald Reagan’s second term, during the tensions of the Cold War, when the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction laws (the predecessors to today’s Budget Control Act) cut the defense budget by 10 percent over four years in real terms. Not under former President George H.W. Bush, who cut the Pentagon’s budget a further 10 percent in just two years to avoid raising taxes, even as the U.S. was still locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Moreover, if U.S. political and military leaders would refrain from wasteful spending, our defense dollars would go much further. For example, trying to design one plane, the F-35, to meet the different needs of all three services and then rushing it into production before it was adequately tested will cost the Pentagon more than $300 billion. Late, over-budget and under-performing systems are unfortunately the norm, not the exception. Moreover, Congress won’t let the Pentagon cut systems it doesn’t need – costing the Pentagon between $42 and $70 billion. Arguing that the defense department needs a bunch of additional cash while refusing to let it make these sensible cuts is having your cake and eating it, too.