The Real Defense Budget Questions

As Washington tries to get serious about the nation’s crippling debt and deficits, defense spending has emerged as a major focus. Though the issue is important, the quality of the dialogue has been weak–the two parties offer dueling bumper stickers, with little solid analysis.

Much of the current talk about defense budget cuts sounds surreal. On one side, Democrats are pushing for $400 billion or more in cuts. But dig deeper, and you find little White House direction or Pentagon strategy on where that number came from, nor any serious plan for how to achieve it.

Indeed, the cuts sharply contrast with the resource requirements laid out in the recent quadrennial defense and diplomatic reviews, whose writers are now charged with chasing down a new strategy to match the new numbers.

On the Republican side, a confused claim often holds sway that defense cuts should never be on the table — even though GOP leaders already signed off on former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s earlier reductions.

This zero-cuts-now-and-forever plan is combined with a frequently stated goal of creating a 4 percent gross domestic product bottom line on defense spending. But, as with the Democrats, this approach of numbers before strategy is artificial, with no sense of what our defense goals are or should be.
Serious issues of long-term defense spending are being decided during a transition in Pentagon leadership, in the context of a budget drill off-cycle, in a compressed crisis-mode-like time frame, by negotiators skilled at playing a fiscal game of chicken but not at defense issues.

This underscores the risks of any too-hasty big budget deal, which disproportionately targets the military budget without being accompanied by broader fiscal reform needed in discretionary spending, tax and entitlement reform. Substantial defense budget cuts are possible, make no mistake. But they could mean loss of capability, and some may increase security risks.

So defense cuts only make sense if we can reduce other risks by strengthening our economy for the long haul — with broad deficit reductions. As President Barack Obama and congressional negotiators seek a deal, they need to remember this principle of “shared sacrifice” and comprehensive deficit reduction — or the downside of any budget deal could outweigh its benefits in national security terms.

Unfortunately, where they connect to defense, this summer’s budget discussions have the flavor of an argument over arithmetic more than policy and could do harm if they go too far. Unless broad-based deficit reduction, including major tax and entitlement reform, proves possible, it may be better to make July’s debate a more modest down payment on fiscal responsibility, rather than trying to make defense a bill payer with no underlying strategy. Then the two parties can spend the next 16 months framing subsequent choices for voters leading to the 2012 election.

The nation’s problems of economic security are intertwined with national security. If we don’t act on trillion-dollar deficits, we risk the underlying economic bedrock of our long-term defense capability. But defense cuts also add risk to the nation’s security in a time of uncertainty.

National security policy has always been about weighing priorities to minimize dangers — getting everything we want and eliminating all dangers has never been an option. Yet we must avoid the delusion that the proposed cuts can be achieved just by rooting out inefficiencies or reducing waste.

These are the kind of difficult questions that need to be answered as we pare down military spending. The serious issues involved should help clarify the stakes in reducing planned defense spending by some $400 billion over the next 12 years:

  • Is there a way to avoid “salami slicing”? Cuts in Pentagon budgets are frequently apportioned by share. The military services, all the way down to individual program offices, each shave spending by the same amount. This is politically easiest, but cuts crucially needed components by the same percentage as wasteful parts.
  • The defense budget is not just another jobs program. Key areas of national economic policy, trade and science all draw from it. How do we maintain not just core strengths but also niche competencies in a time of austerity? Are there models of success or new ideas that merit examination? Most important, with a smaller manufacturing sector and fewer independent production and product design teams, how do we protect not just the big corporate players but also vital subcontractors?
  • How do we promote innovation in a time of austerity? Defense research and development funds usually get targeted for deep cuts, though they are proportionally more important than other parts of the defense budget to the future of both economic growth and national security. Cut R&D too deeply, and you don’t just risk the next jet fighter but also the next Internet or clean energy breakthrough. You could also lose the technological edge that has convinced countries like China that it is not worth challenging the U.S. armed forces.

Is there a way to assess the intelligence budget more effectively? It is often excluded in these debates, though its $80 billion annual spending is far larger than other national security agencies — like the FBI — now targeted for discretionary cuts.

These issues are not just for congressional negotiators to wrestle with. They must start to become part of the 2012 presidential campaign.

The debate will continue, as it should. Voters who care about U.S. economic and national security should look askance at any candidate, from the right or left, who has only the bumper sticker numbers, not his or her policy answer to the actual questions.