What Price for Military Readiness?

Late last week the Bush administration announced that it would add nearly $20 billion to its original request for the 2002 defense budget. If Congress appropriates that amount, as is likely, the defense budget will increase next year by 7 percent after accounting for inflation. At a time when the United States already spends as much on defense as the world’s next eight powers combined, and when the Pentagon budget remains almost 90 percent of its average Cold War level, is such a large increase really necessary?

The answer is probably yes. The United States has security interests and responsibilities on six continents. It also seeks to deter conflict rather than win war, and to suffer as few casualties as possible if deterrence fails. For these reasons, comparisons between the defense budgets of the United States and those of other countries mean little. Besides, American defense spending, at 3 percent of our gross domestic product, is not unreasonably high. As a percentage of G.D.P., it was twice as high in the Reagan years and three times as high during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

While today’s military is hardly in such bad shape as President Bush and Vice President Cheney claimed during the presidential campaign?near- term combat readiness levels are still comparable to those of the mid-1980’s?improvements are needed. Most notably, stocks of equipment purchased largely during the buildup of the 1980’s need replacing.

That means the president has a big problem. The $18.4 billion he has just added to his request for 2002 is devoted almost entirely to added training, spare parts, military pay and the like. Less than $4 billion is devoted to procuring equipment, on the grounds that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has not yet completed his defense review and so cannot yet propose his own plan for acquiring new weaponry. However, most independent analysts think that the annual procurement budget under existing Pentagon plans will have to increase by $20 billion to $30 billion. Mr. Rumsfeld may soon be in the position of asking for another spending increase just as large as the one he has recently proposed.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of President Bush’s tax cut, there is no more money for such an increase unless surplus projections grow yet again, which seems unlikely given the prevalent signs of a slowing economy. Assuming that the president will not rescind much of his tax cut, he faces a dilemma. At a time when most Americans worry more about education, the environment, health care and the solvency of entitlement programs than foreign threats, he would be running a huge political risk to trim domestic programs in order to spend roughly half of the available federal surplus over the next decade on a defense buildup. Yet as things stand, that is precisely what he will have to do.

One way out is to find ways to economize at the Pentagon. First, as Mr. Rumsfeld realizes, the military must be more efficient: it must close more bases, privatize and outsource more defense support activities, and simplify the way it buys weapons.

The Pentagon also needs to reconsider how it determines the size of its combat forces. The best solution would be to continue to be ready for two wars on different fronts but to cease making extreme worst-case assumptions about each. The capability to fight one war on the scale of Desert Storm while engaging in a smaller simultaneous operation elsewhere should be adequate.

Finally, Mr. Rumsfeld needs to cancel or streamline some key weapons programs. For all the administration’s talk about “skipping a generation” of weaponry, Mr. Rumsfeld’s advisers seem to support virtually all existing procurement programs as well as some others, like large-scale missile defense and more B-2 bombers. Such plans will not fit within a reasonable budget, and not all are necessary, given America’s existing technological dominance.

Critics of the latest defense spending increase should push for reorganizing and economizing at the Pentagon. The administration had better do so as well. Given the tax cut’s impact on revenues, the administration simply won’t have the money to buy its way to better military preparedness.