Not Raising the Defense Budget Is Indefensible

Surprising many of the military officers who voted for him overwhelmingly last fall, President Bush has just stated that “there will be no new money for defense this year.” Preferring to wait for the conclusion of a major policy review before committing to additional spending—and wishing to tell the generals that he will not be a dupe for their excessive budgetary demands—he wisely voiced a word of fiscal restraint.

All that said, however, defense spending really does need to increase. Those who favor massive cuts—starting with Mr. Bush himself—should avoid any delusions that the U.S. can maintain its global security commitments on a budget frozen at current levels. The need for new spending can be held to perhaps half of the $50 billion or more that the military now expects. But it cannot be prudently avoided.

Pentagon critics make several arguments about how the military can save money. Virtually all those arguments are correct, but even in combination, they are insufficient to obviate the need for a spending increase.

Beginning with the key issue of weaponry, Pentagon critics rightly assert that Cold War-style weapons are not needed in the numbers now planned. However, other needs remain. The Pentagon simply must replace aging stocks of weapons that date to the Reagan era, and beyond. In addition, it should redress some weaknesses in existing U.S. capabilities and purchase at least modest quantities of next-generation weaponry such as advanced precision munitions. It should also build a limited national missile defense when the right technology is available—if possible with Russia’s acquiescence, but if necessary without it.

All of this would drive the procurement budget from its current level of around $60 billion to at least $75 billion. That will be true even if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dramatically streamlines programs such as the F-22 Raptor, V-22 Osprey, DD-21 destroyer, and Army Comanche, as he should.

Some advocates of a so-called revolution in military affairs claim that new technologies and war-fighting concepts could provide a more effective military at lower cost. That may be true eventually. At present it is not. The radically new technologies needed for such a transformation are not yet ready for wholesale adoption. Even if they were, transforming the military costs money in the near term. Just ask the Army, which is trying to find an additional $50 billion to build new medium-weight brigades. For now, the need to spur military innovation will require increases in research, development, and experimentation spending.

Other critics take aim at the Pentagon’s current war-fighting framework, claiming that its insistence on being able to fight two overlapping Desert Storm-like conflicts is excessive. Again, their case is compelling. But some type of two-war capability is prudent. Otherwise, opportunistic aggressors could strike if and when we found ourselves in a major war that required most of our defense resources.

A realistic alternative to the “two major theater wars” construct would still need to allow for a single all-out war, with the possible goal of overthrowing an enemy regime and occupying its territory. It would also require, at a minimum, enough combat power for a second substantial conflict. That could be an operation to help Taiwan defend itself against China. Alternatively, it could entail setting up a firm defensive perimeter in a place such as the Iraq-Kuwait border, while undertaking major air-to-ground attacks in the region as well.

Adding up these demands would result in forces at least 90% as large as today’s, especially given the various other demands on U.S. troops around the world—demands that Mr. Bush will have a hard time reducing sharply.

Finally, there are the critics of pork. They are right that Congress should allow superfluous bases to be closed and military depots to be privatized, and that lawmakers should also be more judicious in how they add money to the defense budget. But even if members of Congress refrained from pork-barreling with the defense budget, annual savings would be unlikely to exceed $5 billion, based on the experience of previous rounds of base closures and previous efforts to privatize and outsource.

If you add everything up, today’s national security budget of about $310 billion need not increase to real levels of $350 billion or more. But it will have to go up—and by more than the $5 billion Mr. Bush advocated in last year’s campaign.