Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cutting the Defense Budget: A Free Will Re-Run

Conservatives and Tea Partiers have been calling loudly for deep cuts in public spending. But, defense spending looks to be untouchable. It doesn't have to be, and it doesn't have to compromise America's national security. Veronique de Rugy crunches the numbers: Cutting The Pentagon Budget

Military expenditures are one of the reasons the U.S. government’s financial path is unsustainable. Setting aside expenditures related to the country’s ongoing wars, the fiscal year 2011 defense budget requested by President Barack Obama is $549 billion, 2.8 percent more than last year. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are expected to cost $159 billion more. That comes to $708 billion, the biggest military budget that the United States has seen since World War II.

Defense will represent 19.6 percent of the federal government’s overall spending and 64 percent of discretionary spending. Even adjusted for inflation, according to Travis Sharp, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, this level, $644 billion in 2000 dollars, is 13 percent higher than the Korean War peak ($624 billion), 33 percent higher than the Vietnam War peak ($534 billion), and 23 percent higher than the Reagan era peak ($574 billion).

And we might end up spending even more than that. In March the administration came back mid-year to ask for $33 billion more to support the troops in Afghanistan. Don’t be surprised to see another supplemental spending request in fiscal year 2011.

Actually, I wrote about this back in the early days of Hope & Change. The sad fact is that it's not enough to have a big defense budget. You still need the wisdom to use it well: Change I Can Believe In
Gates' increase in warriors and support staff reflects one of the unspoken lessons of the Iraq War. Before 2003, many of our weapons systems were designed with the partial goal of making combat as safe as posible. This reflected the post-Viet Nam political atmosphere that viewed any combat fatalities as a major liability. The phobia towards combat deaths became terminal after The Battle of Mogadishu when a single corpse being dragged through the streets was apparently enough to send our military - which had seemed invinsible just a few years earlier in Panama and Desert Storm - hightailing it out of town. Even the post-9/11 Afghan War, with its handful of Special Forces and sizable contingent of hired guns, reflected the military's aversion to combat deaths. But, in Iraq, we have seen that a majority of the American public is willing to endure thousands of combat deaths over several years without demanding the sort of skedaddling that previous administrations engaged in. Gates' shift to close-combat weapons and away from over-prices planes and "Future Combat Systems" shows that civilians at the Pentagon view the American public as being much more supportive of real combat, and real casualties, so long as there is some sort of strategic point to it all.

Many fret that we will go "back to the Nineties," in that the military will spend most of its time dealing with sexual harassment and gay rights issues, rather than with actual national defense. It's a legitimate worry in a dollars and cents sense, but the problems that arose from cashing in the supposed peace dividend came from a Clinton administration that couldn't have cared less about military affairs and national defense, rather than a Pentagon that was simply starved for funds. And, Gates is no Les Aspin or William Cohen. He was a dedicated Cold Warrior and successfully implemented the Surge strategy. That should be more than enough to give this some legitimacy.

Here's a list of countries by size of armed forces. If you are literally losing sleep over "defense cuts," I would urge you to go take a look at it. Only 5 nations - China, the US, India, Russia, and North Korea - have more than a million men at arms. Pacifist Japan has a larger military than Great Britain or Israel. ERITRIA has a larger army than Great Britain, not to mention France. Rwanda has managed to become one of Africa's hegemonic military powers, despite having a military that ranks below Yemen's and just above Armenia's.

The truth is that the size and scope of one's military is hardly a barometer for success. What counts is whether you use your military wisely, and whether your resources are used in an intelligent manner. In this decade, the Afghan War, the invasion of Iraq, and the Surge were smashing successes, despite there being relatively few "boots on the ground." On the other hand, the years of the Iraq Insurgency (2004 - early 2007) saw colossal failures, in which Radio Shack level technology and Indian Wars style tactics were used to hobble our expensive equipment and weapons systems. What's the point of building a single warship at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars if it can be sunk by two guys in a boat, as nearly happened to the USS Cole? Why buy fighters at a cost of $140 million each(!) when the Air Force's most effective weapon this decade has been the decades old B-52's and AC-10 Warthogs?

Gates is also promising to "fix" the procurement system to which I say, it's about damned time. Is there anyone more symbolic of our corrupt weapons purchasing system than Jack Murtha, a man who became a national fugure by defaming Marines as war criminals, while also acting as the Democrat's lead appropriator for military affairs? Was there anymore of an absurd spectacle last year - in a year of absurd spectacles - than that of an anti-war Green like Patty Murray rushing to demand that Boeing be given the Air Force's tanker contract, even after Boeing executives had gone to jail for corrupt practices in trying to procure said contract?

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