How Much Money Is Enough for Defense?

Despite all the high-octane campaigning about military readiness in this year’s presidential race, Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore do not differ much in the core elements of their defense policies. Bush and Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney have described a military that is overworked and undersized as a result of eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration. But they do not propose increasing the size of the armed forces and have few, if any, ideas about how to reduce overseas commitments.

Most tellingly, the budget proposals of the two candidates differ by less than 2%. Remarkably, for perhaps the first time since the 1960s, it is the Democratic candidate who proposes spending more on the country’s defense. Gore proposes allocating $100 billion of the 10-year surplus, or about $10 billion per year, to the armed forces. Bush’s budget plan would provide the Pentagon about half as large a real-dollar increase. Either way, defense spending would remain about $300 billion a year. That is as much as the world’s next 10 military powers spend in aggregate. But it represents just 3% of this nation’s GDP, two to three times less than during the Cold War.

The two presidential candidates do differ in their preferred approach to national missile defense and a couple of other specific matters. But on broad matters of the size and cost of the military, this year’s real defense debate is not between Gore and Bush. Rather, it is between civilians and the uniformed military.

The nation’s four military services did an admirable job of reducing their size and cost during the 1990s while performing difficult missions from Korea to the western Pacific Ocean to the Persian Gulf to the Balkans. But they held onto expensive plans for modernizing their weaponry. During the past decade, actual purchases were modest because the country still had ample new weaponry on hand thanks to the Reagan buildup. Now, weapons built in the 1970s and 1980s are wearing out and will soon need replacing. It is time to pay the piper.

Independent analysts and organizations differ on just how much it will cost to buy all this new high-tech equipment, including everything from F-22 fighters to V-22 tilt-rotor transport aircraft to Virginia-class submarines to weapons for a lighter, more deployable Army. But virtually all expect that annual defense spending will have to grow by $30 billion to $50 billion to acquire it all. That contrasts dramatically with the annual spending increase of $5 billion that Bush proposes, or the figure of $10 billion that Gore prefers. Costs would go up even more if Bush deploys a large national missile defense.

One need not read between the lines of Pentagon budget plans. Recently, the uniformed military has become remarkably blunt about what it wants. One of the joint chiefs, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James L. Jones, has suggested that annual defense spending should be at least 4% of gross domestic product. That would translate into an annual spending increase of $100 billion or more, 10 times what Gore proposes and 20 times what Bush advocates.

Jones may just be offering a high first bid to dramatize what he sees as a grossly insufficient defense budget. Yet the official weapons acquisition plans of the services show evidence of a yawning gap between what the uniformed military considers necessary and what politicians promise.

This chasm is too wide to be healthy. Perhaps we need to consider spending a bit more of the surplus on the armed forces. But given the nation’s military prowess and lack of serious rivals, the notion of an annual defense spending increase of $100 billion—or even half as much—has little in the way of logic and even less in the way of political plausibility. The leaders of the military services need to reassess. There are less-expensive ways to keep a modern, capable military.