Yes, Cut Defense Spending — But By How Much?

Fareed Zakaria makes a reasonable case in his Aug. 4 op-ed column, “Yes, let’s cut defense,” that military spending should be reduced as part of any deficit reduction deal. In fact, it surely will be. But he is almost cavalier about the amount of that reduction, blurring the line between cuts of some $350  billion to $500  billion over 10 years (which are doable) and those closer to a trillion dollars over the same period (which are not). Yes, let’s cut defense. But let’s do it strategically. The amount matters a lot.

Zakaria is right that U.S. defense spending has grown greatly over the past decade. Even after factoring out the effects of inflation, annual spending has risen from just over $400 billion to about $700 billion. But almost $200 billion of that growth is for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those budgets are headed down already. Estimated 2012 expenses are about 40 percent less than the recent peak yearly level. The downward trend will continue as most or all remaining U.S. forces exit Iraq this year and the number of American troops in Afghanistan declines by a third by next year, with further cuts likely to follow soon thereafter.

As for the rest of the increase, while it is true that there is plenty of waste, it is unfair to attribute this to an “out of control military-industrial complex.” When Dwight Eisenhower warned about such a monster, American defense spending consumed twice as high a fraction of the economy as it does today, and the military had a million more troops.

Of the remaining $100 billion in increased annual defense spending since 2001, much has gone to the troops and veterans who are doing so much in our nation’s wars (while the rest of us generally do so little). Increased compensation and higher payments for health care are tens of billions of that amount. Some may be excessive, such as generous health benefits for unwounded middle-aged retirees, but most of it has been morally and strategically appropriate for a democracy waging two wars with an all-volunteer force.

So what’s left in terms of the increase that Zakaria pillories? Perhaps $75 billion in yearly expenses. That’s real money, to be sure — and much of it arguably unneeded. But to maintain a military of the size and caliber of even the Clinton years, which few considered excessive, we needed to spend more on equipment than we spent throughout the 1990s and into the early years of the George W. Bush presidency. That is because, after the Cold War ended, the nation took a “procurement holiday” and cut spending on new hardware to about 15 percent of the Pentagon budget. Historic norms were closer to 25 percent. The buildup during the Reagan administration enabled the cutbacks, but as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned this week, that Reagan-era equipment is aging and requires replacement (or, in some cases, refurbishment, which is still costly).

There is, ultimately, probably $50 billion in annual defense spending that can be scrutinized as potentially excessive for the times in which we live. Since the Clinton years, the capabilities of Iran and the rise of China are among the strategic developments that have become more concerning, not less. One need not seek out new conflict to see the virtues of a globally engaged and well-equipped American military to help reassure allies, discourage nuclear proliferation and reduce the odds of the outbreak of war.

Zakaria notes that State Department and aid accounts remain less well funded than the military. I agree. Deficit reduction efforts in the years ahead should selectively protect these smaller accounts even more than they protect Pentagon budgets. But that is no argument for indiscriminately hacking away at the latter.

That the United States spends a lot more on its defense than other nations is not necessarily a bad thing. American military excellence — in people, training and equipment — is one of the reasons that Middle East oil continues to flow despite Iran’s malevolent intentions and that China continues to prefer a peaceful rise to a violent one. While saving money and becoming more efficient are important, I’d like to keep American military preeminence largely as it is.