Defending Defense: A Response to Recent Deficit Reduction Proposals

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America’s military has come under severe strain in the last decade, fighting two wars, preparing for the many potential challenges of the future, and contending with a growing number of aging, worn-out weapons systems. Yet as the debate in Washington about reducing America’s deficit gathers steam, there are increasing calls to make deep cuts in the defense budget. The fiscal effects of such reductions are miniscule—saving perhaps $100 billion over many years against projected annual deficits of more than $1.4 trillion—but the impact on the U.S. military is major. Greater still would be the effects of diminished American power in an increasingly “multipolar” world.

The proposed defense budget cuts, spending freezes, and program cancellations put forward recently in a series of high-profile studies and reports from the chairmen of President Obama’s deficit commission, as well as the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force, do not appear to be grounded in any realistic assessment of our military’s current capabilities and the challenges we are likely to face in the years ahead. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the proposals drafted by deficit commission co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, “in terms of the specifics they came up with, that’s essentially math, not strategy.”

Gates’ criticisms apply equally to the efforts overseen by former Sen. Pete Domenici and former Congressional Budget office director Alice Rivlin. Their task force calls for a freeze on defense spending and Pentagon cuts that would take the military’s budget down to 2000 levels; in short, they want to return to a peacetime budget in the midst of two protracted wars. The White House deficit commission co-chair's recommendations were similarly bipartisan but more specific, identifying a series of specific weapons programs which would together decimate the war fighting capacity of America’s armed services, particularly the Marine Corps.

Economically, there is no reason to make defense the bill-payer for the country’s domestic excesses: Pentagon spending is a drop in the bucket of the government’s $13.3 trillion debt. As Secretary Gates pointed out recently, “If you cut the defense budget by 10 percent, which would be catastrophic in terms of force structure, that's $55 billion on a $1.4 trillion deficit.” Defense, he rightly concluded, is “not the problem” driving the country’s deficit. Indeed, as former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Martin Feldstein has noted, Simpson and Bowles “overlooked the easiest route to reducing the deficits over the next decade: scaling back the costly budget that President Obama presented earlier this year. Much of the projected doubling of the national debt between 2010 and 2020 reflects the spending and tax proposals in that budget.”

There is a common misconception that the military has enjoyed ballooning budgets since the beginning of the decade. In reality, the baseline defense budget (not including the costs of the-wars) grew from only 3 to 3.5 percent of GDP from the end of the Clinton administration to the time George W. Bush left office, delaying modernization and procurement efforts across all the armed services. “Going to war with the army you have,” to paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has exacerbated this problem, gobbling up the remaining service life of older systems; nine-plus years of war have only increased this “modernization deficit.” Further reductions, on top of the more than $300 billion Secretary Gates has already cut in proposed procurement of new weapon systems, will dangerously erode the technological edge that America’s armed forces depend upon, and deserve.

The larger effects of strategy-by-mathematics are plain; indeed, the real virtue of the Simpson–Bowles proposal is that it is frank in its desire to “reexamine America’s 21st century role.” Yet international politics is rarely a matter of arithmetic and American strength has a massive multiplying effect on economic growth and the growth of human freedom. We can easily calculate the costs of our military power; it’s harder to measure so precisely the costs that surely would come from its absence.

Americans are rightly concerned about the bloated size of the Federal budget, but they also realize that of the current activities carried out by the Federal government on a daily basis, perhaps none is more important than its constitutional role in providing for the common defense. If enacted, the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin recommendations would seriously undermine America’s ability to meet the emerging security challenges-of-the-twenty-first-century.


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About Defending Defense

The Defending Defense Project is an effort of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Foreign Policy Initiative to promote a sound understanding of the U.S. defense budget and the resource requirements necessary to sustain America’s preeminent military position in a dangerous world.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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