National Security Network

Defense Spending Realities

Print this page
Report 26 July 2011

Military Military defense spending deficit Strategy

Spending is the watchword in Washington today. Last night President Obama addressed the nation on his plans for reducing the deficit, and today incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he explained the effects of budgetary constraints on the military. This involves facing the reality that defense spending, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has contributed to the deficit and should play a role in fixing the shortfall. It is also the case that there are right and wrong ways to reform defense spending. Reductions must be tied to a larger strategic vision that chooses what missions and capabilities are necessary to ensure American security. A "hollow" force is a danger if reductions come thoughtlessly or without matching capabilities to foreign policy appetites. In fact, changes in defense spending under President Obama have only slowed the rate of growth in the defense budgets, but have not yet produced any actual cuts. The military does face readiness issues, which can be traced back to wars fought with inadequate support under the Bush administration.

Defense spending has played a role in creating the deficit and has a role in fixing it. Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Lawrence Korb writes, "[T]he defense budget has risen in real terms each year since 1998. In the 13 years from fiscal year 1998 to FY 2012, the baseline defense budget (in constant dollars and exclusive of war funding) has grown to $553 billion from $374 billion - an increase of close to 50 percent." Those numbers represent just the "base," or non-war budget. As the New York Times explains, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan consumed nearly $1.5 trillion in direct funding from 2002 to 2009. To that must be added costs such as interest on war debt and long-term healthcare for veterans. Experts at the Eisenhower Research Project recently found that, "The U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will cost between $3.2 and $4 trillion, including medical care and disability for current and future war veterans. This figure does not include substantial probable future interest on war-related debt."

Reining in defense spending should play a role in any deficit reduction plan. The explosion of defense spending makes the U.S. more vulnerable, writes the Center for a New American Security: "Over time, the economic consequences of indebtedness may crowd out investments in a U.S. military that undergirds international security; render the United States more vulnerable to economic coercion; and erode America's global stature and soft power. Relieving U.S. indebtedness demands preventive action by American society and government - including DOD." In addition, this isn't the first time defense reductions have happened; they have a bipartisan history. Colin Powell, former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, "As we draw down from Iraq and as over the next several years as we draw down from Afghanistan, I see no reason why the military shouldn't be looked at. When the Cold War ended 20 years ago, when I was chairman and Mr. Cheney was secretary of Defense, we cut the defense budget by 25 percent. And we reduced the force by 500,000 active duty soldiers, so it can be done. Now, how fast you can do it and what you have to cut out remains to be seen, but I don't think the defense budget can be made, you know, sacrosanct and it can't be touched." [Lawrence Korb, 7/7/11. New York Times, 7/24/11. Eisenhower Research Project, 6/29/11. CNAS, 2/11. Colin Powell, 1/23/11]

To avoid a "hollow" military, strategy must drive reductions. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in the early stages of conducting a "roles and missions" or strategy review begun under his predecessor, Robert Gates. That review needs to ask tough questions about America's role in the world and the best way to achieve American goals with tight budgets. "The key to a successful build down will be linking strategic and mission discipline to this need for fiscal discipline. This means setting mission priorities for the military," notes Gordon Adams, distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. "As Bernard Brodie, one of America's great strategic thinkers, put it more than fifty years ago: ‘Strategy wears a dollar sign.' A disciplined approach to both will produce budgetary savings and ensure that our military capabilities and global leadership remain powerful and well focused on core missions. This means making choices linked to a realistic assessment of risks, defining missions better connected to a more coherent strategy, and doing so within constrained resources."

Lt. Gen. David Barno (ret.), senior advisor at the Center for a New American Security, notes the link between the desire to conduct missions abroad and military spending: "[I]n my judgment, the United States is going to continue to have the overarching role around the world that it's had over the last ten/fifteen/twenty years and beyond. I think we have to find ways to do that spending less on defense and I think that's eminently doable but I also think there has got to be some degree of appetite suppressant out there with presidents and administrations you want to get involved in every conflict that comes along." [Gordon Adams, 7/7/11. David Barno, 7/25/11]

Thus far we have had cautious reductions in rate of growth, not cuts; readiness shortfalls are the legacy of the Bush administration's wars. Conservative chairmen of defense subcommittees in the House of Representatives argued yesterday in Politico that, "The U.S. military confronts readiness shortfalls and a growing array of risks and security challenges. That is why I [sic] am deeply concerned about the avalanche of military spending cuts being discussed - from President Barack Obama's $400 billion proposal to the Senate's Gang of Six proposal that could cut up to $886 billion." Yet, as Defense News explained in April, the $400 billion in "cuts" to defense spending in President Obama's budget are from proposed, not actual, funding: "The goal will be to hold growth in the defense base budget below inflation, which would save $400 billion by 2023, according to the White House. This deficit reduction effort is in addition to the savings generated from ramping-down overseas contingency operations, the White House said." TIME magazine Deputy Managing Editor Romesh Ratnesar explains, "In the past several months, a number of analysts in Washington from across the political spectrum have drafted proposals to cut military spending by 10% to 15% over the next 10 years. Though they differ in programmatic details, these proposals have some common themes: they all assert that we can make meaningful defense cuts without compromising U.S. military primacy." Those proposals include the Sustainable Defense Task Force and the president's bipartisan deficit reduction commission, both of which laid out a menu of options for cutting up to $1 trillion from the defense budget over the next decade.

The military does face readiness shortfalls, a legacy of years of under-planned and under-resourced foreign wars.  In 2008 the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America argued that the war policies of the Bush administration "have pushed our military to the breaking point." The report cites former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace, saying he "believes that there is a significant risk that the U.S. military would not be able to respond effectively if confronted by another crisis."  [Defense News, 4/13/11. Romesh Ratnesar, 4/12/11. SDTF, 6/11/10. Bipartisan Deficit Commission, 12/10. IAVA, 1/08]

What We're Reading

President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner escalated their battle over the national debt, pressing their arguments in a pair of prime-time television addresses as Congress remained at a loss over how to keep the United States from defaulting next week.

The self-described perpetrator of Norway's deadly bombing and shooting rampage was ordered held in solitary confinement after calmly telling a court that two other cells of collaborators stood ready to join his murderous campaign.

Senior Indian and Pakistani officials have held discussions in New Delhi, India, that will lay the groundwork for formal peace talks set for Wednesday.

France appeared to have persuaded Britain to support a shift in attitude toward Col. Muammar Qaddafi, suggesting that he could be allowed to remain in Libya in return for giving up power in a broader deal including a cease-fire.

At least 78 people were killed when a Moroccan military transport plane crashed into a mountain in the south of the country during bad weather, the military said.

Gaza's Hamas government executed a Palestinian father and son convicted of spying for Israel in defiance of President Mahmoud Abbas, who by law has final say in implementing such rulings.

The UN's top nuclear official says the world's reliance on atomic power will continue to grow, despite the crisis at Japan's Fukushima plant.

Taiwan's Defense Ministry sent two F-16 fighters in late June to intercept two Chinese aircraft that crossed into its airspace in what it described as the first such incursion by China since 1999.

The main organizers of anti-government protests in Malawi have given an ultimatum for the African country's president to address their grievances or face more protests.

Congressional investigators have identified 122 weapons linked a gun-trafficking sting investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious that have been recovered at crime scenes in Mexico.

Commentary of the Day

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writes that the keystone of the U.S. - China relationship is strategic trust, which is created by continuous and honest dialogue.

Brad Smith argues that in order to create new jobs, and succeed competitively, the United States needs to adapt to the rapidly changing global economy by developing policies that attracts the international, skilled workforce needed to ensure that the U.S. economy thrives.

H.D.S. Greenway highlights Norway's involvement in peace work and conflict resolution and argues that even the best intentions cannot inoculate a country from terrorism.