FPI Bulletin: Why it’s Time to Re-invest in the U.S. Military

August 1, 2016

In the current issue of National Review, FPI Policy Director David Adesnik takes a detailed look at the long-term budget trends and short-term political pressures that are responsible for the erosion of U.S. military power. FPI believes that the following quotations from his article will be of use to lawmakers, their staff, and members of the general public who must grapple with the complicated question of how much the United States should spend on its military.

For additional information about the data underlying Dr. Adesnik’s conclusions, please consult this FPI Fact Sheet.

“If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States of America on a budget of more than a half a trillion dollars a year,” said then–secretary of defense Robert M. Gates in 2009, ‘then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.’ Gates’s pointed remark reflects a concern broadly shared by small-government conservatives as well as many liberals. For the past 25 years, there has been no army, navy, or air force in the world that comes close to matching its American counterpart in terms of either its prowess on the battlefield or the size of its budget. In fact, the U.S. spent more on defense last year than the next seven top spenders combined. Many are clamoring for a slimmer, cheaper military. But can we defend the country for less? With a national debt of $19 trillion, how should American policymakers be thinking about defense spending?

“Significantly, Gates himself would soon discard the notion that $500 billion per year represents the upper bound for a fiscally responsible defense budget. Instead, he decided, spending levels should correspond to the intensity of the threats we face and our strategy for defeating them. Yet Gates reversed himself only after an aggressive campaign to promote efficiency.  In 2009–10, he canceled $300 billion of planned purchases and cut another $178 billion from projected spending. Yet in his final budget proposal, submitted in February 2011, Gates asked for $553 billion for fiscal year 2012, rising to $611 billion for 2016 (both figures are in current dollars and exclude supplemental appropriations for the war in Afghanistan). He warned the country “not [to] repeat the mistakes of the past by making drastic and ill-conceived cuts to the overall defense budget” while so many threats remained.

“Regardless, Congress passed and the president signed the Budget Control Act of 2011—the infamous ‘sequestration’ bill—which ushered in five years of deprivation for the Department of Defense. …The result is a force that, by the admission of its own leaders, is barely able to execute the missions required by the president’s own strategy.”

Historical Trends

“In the 1950s, the size of the military budget was staggering. It accounted for half of all federal spending, or between 9 and 10 percent of U.S. GDP. … Despite hovering near 4 percent in the years after 9/11, the number is now back down to 3.3 percent and headed for an all-time low. Defense spending is also at an historic low as a percentage of federal spending.”

“Defense spending does not drive the budget deficit; entitlements do. During each of the first five years of the Obama administration, the deficit was larger than the entire defense budget. In other words, even if the United States had not spent a single dollar on defense from 2009 through 2013, it would still have had a budget deficit every year, often a sizable one.”

Balancing the Cost of Personnel and Technology

“Pay and benefits consumes the largest share of the Pentagon budget. When Congress ended the draft and established an all-volunteer force in 1973, the U.S. military assumed the task of attracting servicemen, a decision that helped transform the demoralized force of the post-Vietnam years into the global benchmark for military professionalism—but which, unsurprisingly, has been very expensive.”

“During the Reagan buildup, funding for procurement—i.e., the purchase of new equipment and weapon systems—increased from $85 billion to $169 billion in today’s money. … Even though procurement spending rose after 9/11, it never approached the Reagan-era peak, topping out at $114 billion in 2010 (adjusting for inflation), and much of that new spending had to compensate for the procurement holiday [of the 1990s].”

Reforming the Pentagon

“There is a genuine need for reform at the Pentagon. But the belief that common sense alone can generate a windfall is little more than an artifact of Reagan-era myths about the Pentagon’s $600 toilet seats and $435 hammers—which were just that: myths.

“The real barriers to reform are congressional politics, legitimate concerns about fairness, and the extraordinary complexity of developing cutting-edge technology in the public sector. And even if all of these reforms came to fruition, the savings would not come close to paying for the investment the U.S. military needs.”

“In April 2015, 38 defense experts from across the political spectrum sent an open letter to the Pentagon and to Congress emphasizing the urgent need for reform. The letter highlighted three priorities for action: closing unnecessary bases, paring back the civilian work force, and reforming the military compensation system.”

Sequestration and Declining Readiness

“Sequestration refers to the automatic and indiscriminate cuts that go into effect if Congress appropriates more than is allowed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011. … In total, the BCA has resulted in almost $1 trillion of defense cuts.”

“The [former] Air Force chief of staff, General Mark Welsh, said that, if his airplanes were cars, ‘we currently have twelve fleets of airplanes that qualify for antique license plates in the state of Virginia. We must modernize our air force.’”

“One of the costs of having too few ships, despite incessant demand, is that deployments have gotten longer, wearing out both the ships and their sailors. On aircraft carriers, F/A-18 fighters with an expected lifespan of 6,000 flying hours are staying in the air for 8,000, 9,000, or more.”

“A return to Gates-level defense budgets is the first step to reversing our military decline. In light of the current president’s pursuit of foreign and defense policies worthy of Jimmy Carter, a return to Reaganesque principles is long overdue.”

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