Saluting the Military’s Wishes Has a Penalty

The Bush administration has announced that it will seek an increase of $48 billion in next year’s military budget, bringing it to roughly $390 billion. Even in these times, it is unnecessarily high and takes money away from other more needed domestic programs.

To get a sense of how big the proposed budget increase would be, consider a few facts. Adjusting for inflation, this would be the largest year-to-year increase in the defense budget since the Korean War. American defense spending would exceed the Cold War norm and almost equal the Reagan-era average. It would exceed Russia’s or China’s military budget almost tenfold.

To be sure, some defense spending increase is still warranted, even though today’s military is one-third smaller than the Cold War force. Today’s armed forces are made up of more expensive people operating more sophisticated weaponry. They are busy around the world and training hard at home. Even though there was a hefty defense budget increase last year, most of it went to salaries, operations, equipment maintenance, and research and development. We still need to increase spending to replace aging weaponry. A further increase of $10 billion to $15 billion, mostly for the Pentagon’s procurement budget, makes sense. Add that to the cost of the ongoing war and there is valid explanation for about half of President Bush’s proposed increase.

But in arguing for a $48-billion increase, the president wrongly assumes that the war on terrorism requires satisfying every Pentagon desire. As we all have learned by watching the performance of our forces in Afghanistan, some weapons are performing more brilliantly than others. Unmanned aerial vehicles, precision-guided munitions, and rapid communications and information networks have provided much of the punch for defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Many of these weapons were purchased during the years when Pentagon procurement budgets were modest. Forced to make difficult choices, the Pentagon put its money into high-payoff and relatively low-cost weaponry. It cannot economize in all cases, but it is good to give the Pentagon these types of incentives.

By granting the military virtually every weapon on its agenda, Bush will remove the financial pressure that leads organizations to prioritize, economize and to find new ways of doing business more efficiently. Again, to be fair, the president is doing nothing more than fully funding a force structure and a weapons agenda he inherited from the Clinton administration. But to govern is to choose, and Bush is failing to do that.

In September 1999, candidate Bush, in a speech at the Citadel, called for the military services to skip a generation of weaponry. Arguing that many new systems would be unnecessary if the Defense Department developed new tactics, he suggested that the country could have a better military without devoting most of the fiscal surplus to the nation’s armed forces.

Now the surplus is gone and Bush, ironically, has abandoned his call for financial restraint at the Pentagon. After Sept. 11, no one can deny that we need ample funds to wage the war on terrorism and to protect the U.S. homeland. But most of the proposed defense spending increase would not directly aid those missions. Instead, it would go toward advanced fighter aircraft, destroyers and other weapons that would be needed in large numbers only if we fought an advanced military. Neither Al Qaeda nor any other terrorist organization or any state sponsor of terrorism possesses such a force. We still must prepare for possible war against a country such as China, but even that mission does not require busting the bank.

The Pentagon does need to replace aging weaponry, but it need not replace every existing weapon with something costing twice as much. More economical innovations are possible by exploiting the full promise of the computer and electronics revolutions.

Devoting huge sums to the military could interfere with other national priorities. Bush may be unable to find funds for medical care, education, further welfare reform and other needs at home. As serious as Sept. 11 was, we need not and must not sacrifice our domestic agenda to defeat Al Qaeda.