Solving Today’s Defense Dilemma

On Capitol Hill late last month, Joint Chiefs’ Chairman General Henry Shelton testified that the U.S. armed forces are overworked and underfunded. As he sees things, the United States soon must either scale back its military role in the world or drastically increase the defense budget.

It is not hard to see why General Shelton offers such a stark choice. Upward pressures on the defense budget are indeed severe. Most importantly, weapons bought during the 1980s Reagan buildup are getting old. After a decade of a “procurement holiday,” we must now drastically increase spending on hardware. If the military services have their way, annual spending will have to go up $30 billion to $50 billion in real terms, as the Congressional Budget Office recently affirmed. In addition, military personnel are working quite hard these days. About 100,000 troops are deployed away from families and home base at any given time—about 8 percent of the total force of 1.4 million, which must also train for war. During the latter years of the Cold War, only about 6 percent of the force was typically deployed.

Alas, neither of General Shelton’s options is acceptable. The United States has important overseas interests from Europe to the Persian Gulf to East Asia, making global retrenchment unwise. Nor are huge defense spending increases in the offing. The United States already spends as much on its armed forces as the world’s next ten military powers combined, and its budget remains 90 percent as large as the Cold War average. Against that backdrop, voters are unlikely to favor a major military buildup over domestic priorities or tax cuts. Accordingly, neither presidential candidate proposes spending more than a few percent of the projected federal surplus on the armed forces.

So what is the solution? Republicans want to reverse what they see as the Clinton-Gore administration’s profligate use and consistent underfunding of the Pentagon. But in fact, nearly all of today’s major military missions predate the Clinton-Gore administration. The only exception is in the Balkans—where U.S. allies are now providing more than 80 percent of the manpower in any case. Nor do Governor Bush or Mr. Cheney advocate a major increase in funding. In fact, they propose spending less on defense than does the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

There are no easy answers. But a realistic solution to the current defense dilemma should, in addition to pursuing additional base closures and other common-sensical reforms, contain four main elements.

Less expensive weaponry. The military services do need to replace aging equipment, but they need not spend as much as they currently intend. For example, rather than buying large numbers of advanced fighter aircraft that cost twice as much as today’s, they could purchase more modest numbers—and otherwise buy more of existing aircraft like F-16s to replace aging planes. If equipped with advanced munitions, sensors, computers, and communications systems, they will be more capable than current fighters in any event—and far better than anything adversaries could muster.

A different two-war strategy. The military should continue preparing for two nearly simultaneous conflicts. But rather than plan for two overlapping Desert Storm-like wars, it should adopt something like a “1 ½ Desert Storm” capability. Specifically, it should assume that only one war would require a prompt all-out ground offensive to overthrow an enemy government and occupy its territory. In a second possible war, it should accept somewhat more risk, rely more heavily on airpower in the early going, and factor in the likely contributions of major allies (especially South Korea) as well as U.S. reserve forces.

Selective reductions in overseas commitments. It would be desirable that the United States scale back some overseas military deployments, but any reductions need to be made very strategically and selectively. They should not weaken deterrence or deprive the United States of an ability to participate in important peace and humanitarian missions. Rather than seeking major cutbacks in the Balkans, it would be wiser to consider reducing the Marine Corps deployment on Okinawa and Navy deployments in the Mediterranean Sea. Neither of these missions serves its original purposes any longer; both could be sharply curtailed without harming core American interests.

Finally, increases in the defense budget. The United States does not need to increase defense spending by $50 billion a year, as the Pentagon’s current plans would require. But even after making the above changes, the military will probably still need more money than either Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush now promises. Annual spending may need to go up $20 billion.

General Shelton is certainly right that the days of defense budget cutting are over. But we do not need a massive military buildup. What is instead required is a new bargain between politicians and the Pentagon, in which civilians provide modest increases in defense spending while the military services find ways to economize in how they buy weaponry and operate their forces abroad. Only in that way can we avoid General Shelton’s Hobson’s choice.