Both advocates of cutting defense spending and those who seek to preserve or increase current levels are making exaggerated claims. The current defense program could be significantly pared back without real danger to our ability to fight and win the nation’s wars. In particular, military personnel costs – health care and retirement – should be carefully reviewed. Such cuts are the most difficult kind for the Executive to recommend and for the Congress to enact, but they are the kinds most needed to keep our military strong. Spending is not a proxy for supporting our military, and we conservatives should not make it so. We should instead bring the same tough-minded cheapness and accountability to defense that we bring to other endeavors of government.
I agree with Tom Donnelly, Gary Schmidt and others who argue that our current defense spending of around 4% of GDP for the baseline budget is economically sustainable; in fact, it is significantly lower as a proportion of GDP than Cold War spending levels. Current levels of spending are also supportable on the basis of the activity in which our military is, and likely will remain, engaged. That is, our spending for defense aligns with our strategy for shaping the international order and the military forces the Pentagon judges necessary.
The current program, however, is not the only way to manage the threats and opportunities; nor is it a particularly cost-effective way to address them. Cost has been no object for our defense since 9/11, and we are well-positioned to accept some near-term risk in order to solve the much bigger national security vulnerability of our federal debt.
It would be a terrible mistake for budget hawks to advocate cuts to defense spending on the basis of “shared sacrifice.” This is an affront to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families who have been at war for the past nine years with almost no shared sacrifice from our broader society. To suggest they now need to do their part is morally repugnant.
But that does not mean defense spending should not be cut. Our military understands the grave danger to our nation of our enormous indebtedness. The most recent Joint Operating Environment (the assessment by Joint Forces Command that begins the military’s planning cycle) identified our national debt as the central threat to our military dominance, because unless the debt is reduced, interest paid on it will crowd out discretionary spending for defense. By 2018, our government will be spending more on debt service than on national defense.
And the DOD budget is not as lean or efficient as its defenders would have us believe. Secretary Gates has pulled off one of the great slights of hand of our time by complaining loudly about defense cuts while not producing any. Just after the 2008 presidential election, Secretary Gates published a National Defense Strategy endorsing the current program and allowed the Services to publish cost unconstrained spending programs, ensuring that any budget proposed by the new Administration would be considered a cut. DOD’s FY 2010 budget actually encompassed a 7.5% increase in defense spending amidst Secretary Gates talking as though he had taken a meat axe to the program. His proposal to cut $100 billion across five years merely shifts spending within DOD’s topline. It produces no savings. In fact, his FYDP (DOD’s 5 year budget outlook) is built on an annual 2% real increase in spending.
But in recent days Secretary Gates has hurt his own case by overstating the effect relatively minor cuts to defense will have. Gates described the $100 billion cut across five years recommended by the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction commission as “catastrophic.” It is difficult to see how a cut of less than 3% in annual spending would actually be catastrophic.
Gates dismisses their recommended cuts as “math, not strategy.” And he’s right that outsiders should not cherry pick programs to cut, but instead give DOD a topline figure and allow it to develop a comprehensive force structure. But strategy is amenable to risk and choices, whereas arithmetic is unyielding. We have a crippling problem of debt that we must solve; if cuts to defense spending are necessary to gain political acceptance for other, larger cuts to federal spending, we are well-positioned to absorb that near-term risk.
The Pentagon and defense industry ought to be very careful about wrapping themselves in the flag and claiming any cut is heresy, especially since our military – and particularly the ground forces – have been upgrading equipment as it has been replaced across the past decade. We are nowhere near a hollow force, and nowhere near catastrophe if modest cuts are made.
Where DOD’s budget does contain a potential catastrophe is in the growth of medical and retirement benefits. The DOD budget contains in microcosm the same rise in costs for health care and retirement that dominate federal spending. As Todd Harrison points out, “since FY 2000, the total military personnel and healthcare cost per active-duty troop has risen 73 percent in real terms.” Unless changes are made to military entitlements, they will crowd out spending for weapons, training, and even personnel. The military services have long been willing to raise co-pays for military medical care; it is Congress that has refused. While Congress’ advocacy for Servicemembers and their families is admirable, it is misplaced in this instance. It would be a reasonable place to start looking for savings.