Who Will Limit the U.S. Defense Budget?

Earlier last month, the Bush administration requested a $46 billion defense budget increase for 2003. That would come on top of a combined $45 billion increase in the annual budget from 2000 to 2002, and be followed by a further increase of $75 billion after 2003. Even factoring out the effects of the war, homeland security and inflation, the annual defense budget would still grow by a staggering $100 billion between 2000 and 2007. Such an increase is too much.

How can deficit hawks of both parties in Congress limit these proposed defense budget increases to more fiscally responsible levels? How can they do so without appearing unpatriotic during this time of national crisis—and without risking defeat in November elections?

The first order of business is the 2003 budget, and particularly the Bush administration’s request of nearly $20 billion for the costs of war. That amount is broken down into two parts: $10 billion as a placeholder cost estimate for military operations next year, plus $9.4 billion to replenish weaponry and spare parts inventories and otherwise recuperate from the war to date.

Congress should not provide either of these sums as part of the 2003 defense budget. The $9.4 billion for war costs that have already been incurred should be provided soon as part of a supplemental defense appropriation. Members of Congress concerned about challenging the president on defense issues at a time of war should emphasize to their constituents that a supplemental appropriation for 2002 would get money to troops even faster than the administration proposes. As for the $10 billion for future operations, it should be provided only when and if needed. Making these sums supplemental appropriations will protect Congress’s role in the budget process. It will also avoid artificially inflating the defense budget for 2003 in a way that would tend to push up subsequent defense budgets as well.

What about more substantive issues of defense policy? The Bush administration is avoiding tough choices so far; Congress must push it to do better in:

Pay. The outstanding men and women of the U.S. armed forces deserve good compensation. In general, they are now getting it. The popular notion of a military-civilian pay gap is, for the most part, a myth. After the largess of the last few years, military pay has never been higher in inflation-adjusted dollars. Partly as a result, recruiting and retention have improved markedly.

Most additional increases should be targeted at those few technical specialties where the Pentagon still has trouble attracting and keeping people, rather than the entire force. Since troops are receiving improved housing and health benefits at present, standard pay raises should be held to the rate of inflation.

This argument is admittedly easier to make within the safe ivory walls of a think tank than in the halls of Congress. But at a minimum, Congress should hold hearings and raise questions this year.

Research and Development. Bush has rightly emphasized R&D ever since he began running for president, but again, the 2002 budget already added large sums to this area. Real-dollar budgets for research, development, testing and evaluation already exceed the levels of the first Bush administration and roughly equal those of the peak Reagan years. No more than another $1 billion is needed for the 2003 budget and beyond.

Procurement. The Clinton administration averaged spending about $50 billion a year buying equipment; the figure is now about $60 billion. According to the Congressional Budget Office, however, the expensive modernization plans of the military services imply an annual funding requirement of $90 billion or more. Accordingly, the Bush defense budget envisions procurement funding growing to $99 billion by 2007.

But Operation Enduring Freedom has underscored the potential of relatively low-cost capabilities, particularly precision munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles and horseback-riding special operations personnel equipped with advanced sensors. To be sure, expensive weapons such as aircraft carriers have been used as well. Moreover, not every future foe will be as militarily unsophisticated as the Taliban and al-Qaeda. That said, the services need to prioritize.

A more prudent modernization agenda would begin by canceling at least one or two major weapons, such as the Army’s Crusader artillery system. In addition, rather than replace most major weapons platforms with systems costing twice as much, the Pentagon would only equip a modest fraction of the force with the most sophisticated and expensive weaponry. Otherwise, the rest of the force would be equipped primarily with relatively inexpensive upgrades of weaponry carrying better sensors, munitions, computers and communications systems.For example, rather than purchase some 3,000 joint strike fighters, the military would buy about 1,000 as a “silver bullet” force. It would then purchase aircraft such as new F-16 Block 60 fighters (and possibly some unmanned attack aircraft) to fill out its force structure.

These ideas would not preclude the need for defense budget increases. But they could help keep Pentagon spending from going through the roof, and avoid fostering the misimpression that winning the war on terrorism requires satisfying every military wish.