Heated debate continues over the impact of $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts to the federal budget that could begin next year. There are also disagreements over what share of the nation’s gross domestic product is sufficient for defense. All interested observers are tuned in, anxiously waiting for big decisions to be made.
What to make of all this?
First, any debate about defense spending must address the strategy issue. An assessment of needed military capabilities flows from the national military strategy, which includes significant military input. That in turn flows from the national security strategy, which is an Executive Branch function of the U.S. government. Congress has a role in all this, but in the end, strategy drives forces, capabilities and budgets. Most pundits ignore this critical link, and much of the discussion that takes place in the media fails to note that analysts, in some very significant ways, redefine strategy for the purposes of their arguments. In some cases, this is explicitly defined, but in others, it is implicit and one wonders if the pundits are even aware of the difference between their analyses and the official national strategy.
On the question of what percentage of U.S. GDP should be devoted to defense, there are many variables to consider. The Obama administration’s budget proposal for 2013 is $525 billion in the base and $88 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO). If GDP is taken to be $16 trillion, that total, $615 billion, is about 3.8 percent of GDP. If sequester happens, the defense base would shrink to $469 billion, or 2.9 percent of GDP. If OCO is included, the share is 3.4 percent of GDP.
Some think tanks have suggested that 4 percent of GDP is appropriate. That yields a budget of $640 billion. In 2010, the Defense Department spent nearly $700 billion, the high point of contemporary budgets. One could conclude from all this that the economy in a traditional sense could afford any of these scenarios. It is worth remembering that President Ronald Reagan’s defense budgets consumed north of 6 percent of GDP.
Historically, the nation has been able to afford robust defense budgets. But the economic downturn and burgeoning entitlement costs (Medicare and Medicaid) have left the nation with trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits. The defense budget already is being cut back. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates began efficiencies-based spending reductions in 2010, and his successor Leon Panetta put his imprint on a new defense strategy that focuses on Asia-Pacific and begins a drawdown of land forces. If any more defense cuts are made beyond what already was recommended by the administration, the strategy must be revised, as cuts should be consistent with strategy.
When considering any cuts, it is also important to look at trends within the defense top line. Burgeoning health care costs in defense are consuming increasing shares of military spending as are poorly performing acquisition programs. In this context, defense spending does not always equate to actual military capabilities. It is not sufficient to look at the total number and compare it to previous years, or to compare it with other countries’ defense budgets. The United States offers far more generous compensation packages and benefits to its military forces than other nations.
These points often are not fully considered by commentators on defense spending. For example, Bloomberg defense reporter Tony Capaccio noted that the U.S. military budget is greater than those of China, Russia, Iran, Syria and North Korea combined. He pointed out that even if sequestration goes into effect as currently planned, military spending in 2013 would still be greater than the 2006 budget, adjusted for inflation. Budget analysts Gordon Adams and Todd Harrison have opined that the automatic cuts of the Budget Control Act reverse the buildup that started after 9/11. They don’t see a big issue with the coming cuts under sequester. Implicitly, their assessment of the size of the force that is needed to execute the current national strategy is smaller than that projected by the professionals in the Defense Department.
In recent months, the Pentagon made a large reprogramming request of $8.2 billion for operations in Afghanistan, transportation, renegotiated contracts and health care. Programs that would receive additional funds include radars, missiles, radios, and communications and information systems, while the big losers are major combat platforms and poorly performing programs. In peacetime, reprogramming actions tend to be for much smaller amounts. The point is that war operations drive much instability and unpredictability. Sequester as presently envisioned would only add to this instability and unpredictability.
There is no question that the law that mandates sequestration is bad public policy. It ignores the critical needs of the nation’s warriors in uniform who day in and day out deploy, patrol, fight and redeploy. Their needs are many. They continue to suffer casualties and their families are hanging on. The 2011 Budget Control Act does give the president authority to exempt personnel spending entirely or partially from the sequester. The language is less clear on whether overseas military operations would be protected.
Regardless of the legal technicalities of the BCA, it is simply not right to be sending troops off to fight and putting them in harm’s way while defense spending is being held hostage by political disagreement. Once, in this republic, certain things were considered above politics. Why have so few leaders fought to keep the military above the fray? Are we that same republic, or have we changed in unrecognizable ways?
Let’s get back to the basics. We have always given 100 percent support to those we send to war. We should do no less now.
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