By Nicolas J.S. Davies
Next week, Congress will begin debate on a roughly$601 billion Pentagon budget for FY2015. Before we let this pass unchallenged, let’s take a few minutes to put it in some historical perspective.
For 40 years, as the United States waged Cold War against the U.S.S.R. and hot wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Pentagon budget fluctuated between a high of $632 billion in 1952 at the height of the Korean War and lows of $386 billion in 1954 and 1975 when we returned to a “peacetime” military budget at the end of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. (These amounts are in “constant” 2014 dollars from Pentagon documents*, and I’ll keep using those figures throughout this article so that you can be sure we’re comparing “apples to apples.”) Pentagon spending peaked again at $554 billion at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 and at $586 billion in 1985 at the peak of what Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb called “a wartime buildup without a war.”
So, as we transition away from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, why is Congress debating a Pentagon budget that splits the difference between the budgets for 1952 and 1985, the two highest peaks of Cold War military spending?
On December 12th 1989, Senator Jim Sasser of Tennessee, the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, recognized a “unique moment in world history.” As his committee debated the previously unthinkable end of the Cold War, Senator Sasser dared to imagine what we could do with the money we were going to save, and he hailed it as “the dawn of the primacy of domestic economics.”
Two of the experts called to testify before Senator Sasser’s committee that day were former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and former Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb. McNamara and Korb agreed that the $533 billion Pentagon budget should be cut in half, starting with 5% cuts every year for the next 10 years, to leave the country with a peacetime military budget of $267 billion in today’s dollars by the year 2003.
There were small cuts in the U.S. military budget through most of the 1990s, and the 1998 Pentagon budget of $392 billion almost matched the Cold War low of $386 billion from 1954 and 1975. So we have returned to that “Cold War peacetime military budget” three times in the past 60 years, after the end of the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. One has to ask, “Why should the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars be any different?” And yet Congress is debating a $601 billion Pentagon budget that is still 56% or $215 billion above that Cold War baseline.
But we must also recognize that $386 billion per year was never a real peacetime military budget. It was a baseline during the quieter periods of the most expensive arms race in history, against a serious military competitor with a nuclear arsenal that peaked at 45,000 warheads, a 5 million man army and a weapons industry to match our own. So the question that Senator Sasser was asking in 1989 was not whether Congress could once again cut Pentagon funding to its 1954 or 1975 level, but how far it could cut below that in the absence of the Cold War arms race.
Robert McNamara, a Democrat, and Lawrence Korb, a Republican and former Reagan official, were unanimous and specific in their call for a 50% cut over 10 to 13 years to $267 billion per year, less than half what we’re spending today. McNamara called for scrapping the B-2 bomber, which eventually cost an incredible $45 billion for 21 planes. He also wanted to abandon the V-22 Osprey, which is still in production 25 years later despite fatal crashes and huge cost overruns, eating up $54 billion for 400 troop transport planes that take off like helicopters – or $135 million per plane.
Under McNamara and Korb’s plan, we still would have handed over $8.1 trillion to the Pentagon over the past 25 years. But that pales next to the $13.7 trillion we have actually spent, adding $5.6 trillion to our national debt. It has been well documented that military spending provides less economic stimulus and job creation than spending on clean energy, healthcare, education or even tax cuts. According to the most comprehensive studies, a billion dollars spent on education will create more than twice as many new jobs as a billion handed over to the Pentagon. So the true cost to the country of this massive diversion of resources to the military is even higher than the raw numbers suggest.
Of course, most of the recent explosion of the military budget took place between FY2002 and FY2008, justified politically as a part of the country’s militarized response to the horrific mass murders in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11th 2001. The FY2008 U.S. military budget of $750 billion was an all-time post-WWII record.
But less than half of the 90% increase in the military budget between 1998 and 2008 was related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the “war on terror”, as Carl Conetta documented in his study, “An Undisciplined Defense,” in 2010. In reality, the Pentagon cashed in on our fear and panic after September 11th to get a blank check for long wish-lists of new warships, warplanes and high-tech surveillance systems, at the expense of all the country’s other urgent needs.
After 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and the endless atrocities and abuses of the “war on terror”, most Americans are much wiser about questions of war and peace today. Faced with a new crisis caused by the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine, only 7% of Americanswant our government to even consider a military response. If most Americans understood the huge drain on our national resources by the Pentagon’s unilateral arms race over the past 15 years, I think it’s fair to say that we would all be as skeptical of a $601 billion military budget as we are of new military entanglements in Ukraine or Syria.
The rational approach to the military budget advocated by McNamara and Korb in 1989 should be a valuable reality check for Congress as it takes up the FY2015 NDAA. In the absence of a serious military threat against the U.S. from any other country, Congress should be asking the same questions and reviewing the same options as Senator Sasser in 1989.
Congress should have no hesitation in cutting the Pentagon budget very quickly to the Cold War baseline of $386 billion. But it should also be thinking and talking seriously about cutting further, at least to the $267 billion level advocated by McNamara and Korb. Current Pentagon projections foresee maintaining a $530 billion baseline defense budget through at least 2018. That’s the same level of military spending that McNamara and Korb examined in 1989 and concluded should be cut by half.
In 1989, McNamara and Korb believed that those savings could be achieved in 10 to 13 years. But, as Conetta explained in “An Undisciplined Defense”, the biggest driver of today’s $600 billion military budget is the failure to make choices between “legacy” Cold War weapons and new ones. In the absence of pressure from Congress to make those choices, the Pentagon simply says, “Thanks! We’ll take both.”
Many of the most expensive weapons are products of Cold War competition with the U.S.S.R. The $2 billion B-2 bomber was designed to outwit Soviet radar in a nuclear war. The F-35 fighter, “the plane that ate the budget”, was designed to outfight Soviet fighters that never got off the drawing board when the U.S.S.R. collapsed. The F-35 and other expensive “legacy” weapons systems are already facing a “death spiral”, in which rising cost per unit leads to reduced orders, in turn forcing the unit cost even higher, leading to further reductions in orders, and so on.
This is how the B-2 bomber program degenerated from 132 planes to only 21 planes, but still cost $45 billion. The Zumwalt-class destroyer, which a Navy spokesman called “a ship you don’t need,” has been downgraded from a planned 32 ships to only 2 ships, but will still cost $12 billion. The F-35, originally budgeted at $50 million per plane, will cost an incredible $1.1 trillion for 2,440 planes, or $450 million per plane.
So eliminating some of these very expensive “legacy” weapons programs can give substantial savings much faster than McNamara and Korb envisioned in 1989. Our present position has more in common with the post- Korean and -Vietnam War periods, when savings in the military budget were realized more rapidly. As the Korean War ended, military spending was cut by 40% in two years. From the spending peak of the Vietnam War in 1968, the military budget was cut by 30% over 7 years to once again reach the $386 billion Cold War baseline.
And yet the proposed FY2015 $601 billion military budget is only a 20% saving from the post-WWII record of $750 billion in 2008, and it still exceeds 2 of the 3 highest spending peaks of the Cold War. Don’t let anyone tell you we can’t do better than this. There is no legitimate reason why we cannot cut 20% from last year’s $586 billion budget and continue to cut 10% every year until we arrive at the $267 billion military budget recommended by Robert McNamara and Lawrence Korb in 1989.
That would slim down down the Pentagon to a $267 billion budget in 7 years, saving a trillion dollars during the transition and at least $260 billion per year over current projections from 2021 on. And a $267 billion military budget is only a medium-term baseline. China, our closest military competitor, spends half that amount on its military budget. Depending how the international environment is affected by a less belligerent U.S. posture and a recommitment to diplomacy and disarmament, it’s reasonable to hope that even greater reductions will be possible in the longer term.
So Jim Sasser could live to see “the dawn of the primacy of domestic economics” that he envisioned in 1989. But he is 77 now, so he won’t want to wait another 25 years. The return to a peacetime military budget would release trillions of dollars to invest and create good jobs in education, healthcare and the vital transition to a clean energy economy.
A return to a peacetime military budget offers the best hope for the future of America and the world, but it’s up to each of us to let our Representatives in Congress know that we understand what is at stake and that we expect them to act. So we need the same groundswell of public opposition to the proposed $601 billion military budget as against plans for U.S. aggression against Syria. Last September, the sleeping giant of American democracy woke from its long slumber to pry the fingers of our leaders from the triggers of their missile-launchers. Now it must start taking away their weapons and converting them into windmills.
*See Table 6-1
Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of “Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.” Davies also wrote the chapter on “Obama At War” for the book, “Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.”