Op-Ed

Defense Budget and American Power

Michael E. O’Hanlon

In the late 1980s, as U.S. gross domestic product growth slowed, budget deficits remained stubbornly high and other economies outperformed that of the United States, arguments that “the Cold War is over—and Japan and Germany won” were heard frequently.

Today, we are witnessing a period of even greater American economic travails, with much larger fiscal deficits and a level of debt that Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has called a top national security threat. These are coupled with deep concern that not Japan and Germany, but less-friendly powers—China in particular, perhaps Russia and others—may be poised to benefit from American decline.

To what extent can the United States mitigate the downsides of any hegemonic realignment of global power by more responsible fiscal policy? And what is the Pentagon’s “fair share” of any such deficit-reduction effort? With the tea party coming to Washington and major task forces on the deficit releasing their action plans, these questions will gain new prominence in the months ahead—as they should. The only way to answer them is by linking possible defense-budget cuts to the military changes and strategic risks that would follow from their enactment and then having a national debate about whether we view such risks as smart choices.

To be sure, it would be penny-wise and pound foolish to jeopardize the general stability of today’s international system in an overly assertive effort to reduce the U.S. federal deficit by some specific percentage. Today’s defense-spending levels are preferable to a major-power war or other serious conflict. Nor are they inherently dangerous; the United States has enough checks on its uses of force, including general casualty aversion, as well as a desire to look inward and focus on domestic issues, rather than expend resources abroad, that it is not necessary to cut defense in order somehow to prevent unwanted operations or harmful defense investments. But major deficit reduction is nonetheless probably necessary for the country’s long-term strength. And only by creating a spirit of shared sacrifice throughout the nation – and throughout all parts of the federal budget—can such deficit reduction likely occur on the necessary scale.

How much might the military scale back as part of a balanced effort at fiscal responsibility? Wartime operations should not be prematurely curtailed based on economic arguments; the budgetary difference between beginning our downsizing in Afghanistan in 2011 or 2012, for example, is not very consequential relative to the size of the debt. (The total war costs might vary by $50 billion, less than one-half of 1 percent of current aggregate debt held by the public). The focus should be, rather, on the underlying or “peacetime” defense budget of $550 billion. It represents about one-sixth of federal spending. Proportionately speaking, if we sought to cut our federal structural budget deficit in half by mid-decade or so, that might imply a 10 percent cut in the peacetime defense budget, or about $50 billion to $60 billion in annual spending relative to the current defense program.

Many studies on reducing the defense budget begin with a broad, sweeping argument about supposed Pentagon profligacy, then quickly move to detailed specifics. These studies risk being facile. In fact, the Pentagon is wasteful like any other large organization—but the waste is hard to excise, and the weapons now planned for purchase are not simple Cold War anachronisms kept alive only by bureaucratic inertia and congressional pork-barrel politics. To paraphrase Dick Cheney from 20 years ago, to cut the defense budget, we will really have to cut the defense budget. Beyond the kinds of efficiencies Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is already implementing, I would suggest two broad approaches: returning ground forces back to Clinton-era levels once the downsizing begins in earnest in Afghanistan, and being more selective in weapons modernization. Each of these approaches could provide nearly half the requisite savings, if applied systematically.

Scaling back the size of the Army and Marine Corps to Clinton and early Bush levels would mean roughly 15 percent cuts relative to current combat force structure. There was, in fact, a reasonable amount of bipartisan consensus on those earlier levels, with Defense Secretaries Les Aspin, William Perry, William S. Cohen and Donald H. Rumsfeld all supporting them over a 10-year period.

Smaller ground forces would not be large enough to handle another decade like the one we have just experienced without reverting to unpalatable policies like 50 percent deployment rates for individual troops (for example, only a year at home after one 12-month deployment and before another). Yet there is a serious case for such smaller forces, nonetheless. They would be adequate for a single sustained large operation of either the Iraq or Afghanistan character at maximum size. They would also be a sizable and probably adequate deterrent against the threat of another North Korean attack on South Korea. Forces of such size would even have the ability to overthrow a regime such as that in Tehran that carried out a heinous act of aggression or terrorism against American interests in the future (though not to occupy the country thereafter).

Regarding weapons modernization, it makes sense to streamline according to the following criteria:

* Weapons making maximum use of the computer and communications revolutions should be considered highest priority. These offer arguably the greatest benefit for the most reasonable price tag—the best bang for the buck.

* Weapons purchases that are redundant should be least protected, with tactical aircraft a case in point.

* Weapons that perform poorly, technically or financially, should be reassessed. These include some key Navy shipbuilding programs today.

* Weapons designed for less-important missions, if these can be convincingly identified, should also receive lower priority. Nuclear weapons modernization and perhaps Marine Corps amphibious assault are possible examples here.

This list of criteria suggests a fundamental re-examination of programs such as the F-35 fighter, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

Cutting the defense budget is not an inherent good; it is indeed a process of taking calculated risk in military accounts and activities to help shore up the future economic strength of the United States, and thus enhance national security, over the longer term. It would also need to be done carefully—with reductions to ground forces only beginning after the Afghanistan operation begins to decline, and with cuts to weapons programs bearing in mind the consequences for America’s defense industrial base.

But weighed against the dangers of the fiscal overstretch and economic decline now facing the country, the case for pursuing about a 10 percent reduction in the core defense budget is strong enough to warrant serious consideration in the years ahead. In debating the idea, we should avoid the implication that there are easy answers or easy economies to achieve, and link possible budget reductions to strategic choices in the nation’s foreign policy. Thankfully, the country’s basic security position is strong enough that responsible options do exist.

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