The Right and Wrong Ways to Cut Defense Spending

August 4th, 2011 at 6:01 pm | 39 Comments |

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CNN’s Fareed Zakaria has a column today arguing for defense cuts and lauding the budget deal’s “sword of Damocles” over the Pentagon budget.

Zakaria argues that the U.S. military should not be exempt from budget scrutiny and, in that sense, his argument is unobjectionable.  But he ignores the fact that, since Obama became president, the U.S. military has suffered some $439 billion in cuts, including $78 billion in “efficiency measures” designed to root out administrative waste.

Moreover, as I reported here at FrumForum on Monday, the budget deal seems to exempt from scrutiny those parts of the Pentagon budget that are the most statist, the most costly, and the most in need of reform.

Retiree pay and benefits, for instance, are reportedly off limits. Yet retiree pay and benefits are extraordinarily generous and poorly designed. Where else in America, after all, can someone retire at age 37 and receive, for the rest of his life, free medical care and a pension worth half his working income?

To be clear, I am not recommending that we cut military pay and veterans’ benefits. But just as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security need to be redesigned along market-oriented lines; so, too, does the military pay and benefits system need to be modernized and restructured.

Yet such reforms aren’t even on the table. Which means that what will get cut are core defense capabilities — i.e., force structure and personnel.

It is important to understand why defense spending grew so much in the past decade: not only because of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to begin to make up for past failures to invest in defense.

The Army, for instance, hadn’t deployed a new-design combat vehicle since the 1980s — and it still hasn’t. And standard-issue Army and Marine Corps Humvees were completely inadequate for the threat that our troopers faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence the need for new “uparmored Humvees.”

“The military is undeniably in a modernization crisis,” writes former Missouri Senator Jim Talent. “The Navy has fewer ships than at any time since 1916; the Air Force hasn’t been this small since Pearl Harbor; and the average age of the Air Force inventory is 25 years old.

“The Army,” Talent adds, “needs to recapitalize equipment lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will need to replace most of its tracked vehicles over the next decade.”

Zakaria laments that

over the past decade, when we had no serious national adversaries, U.S. defense spending has gone from about a third of total worldwide defense spending to 50 percent. In other words, we spend more on defense than the planet’s remaining countries put together.

Of course, as the world’s only real superpower, with an economy second to none, and a geographical expanse that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, the United States spends more on just about everything, including defense.

This isn’t something to lament necessarily; in fact, it can be (and often is) something to celebrate. We can spend a lot on defense, after all, because we are a free and rich country, and the alternative would be much worse.

In any case, the United States spends more on defense for three very legitimate reasons:

  1. We require a military that is second to none — a military that cannot only defeat potential adversaries, but a military that also can deter potential aggressors who would do us, our people and our interests harm.
  2. We require a technologically advanced military that cannot only win wars and deter adversaries, but which can do so with a minimal loss of human life. Consequently, we spend money to save lives — and we wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, want it any other way.
  3. We require that our military do much more than simply win wars. We require that our military maintain an active forward presence aboard precisely to prevent a war from occurring in the first place. This is costly but necessary. Again, we spend money to save lives.

The truth is that America can afford to pay for its defense and must do so. What we cannot afford is to be shortsighted and to pretend that American military withdrawal from the world will somehow make us safer. It won’t.

John Guardiano blogs at www.ResoluteCon.Com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @JohnRGuardiano.

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39 Comments so far ↓

  • Alex

    “But just as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security need to be redesigned along market-oriented lines; so, too, does the military pay and benefits system need to be modernized and restructured.”

    huh? “market oriented lines” have given us the highest per capita costs and worst results in the industrialized world. i’m not sure if this statement is simply ignorant or willfully malicious.

    • adamcarralejo

      I thought the same thing. When did we all decide that “redesigned along market-oriented lines” was a good idea?

      BTW, and many other have commented on this, how can this concept be conservative. Radical reform to social programs which are generations-old isn’t conservative – it’s right wing radicalism more extreme than anything the Obama admin. has attempted towards the left. Just because something is market-oriented/capitalistic/anti-statist does not make it conservative, it only makes it right wing.

  • dugfromthearth

    “To be clear, I am not recommending that we cut military pay and veterans’ benefits.”

    Please be clear then – what do you want done to their pay and benefits? Are you arguing that we need to cut costs by increasing them or keeping them the same? I can come to no conclusion other than that you are recommending that we cut military pay and veteran’s benefits. If you are suggesting something else please be clear what that is.

    But the real problem is that your commentary is simply unbalanced. You give 3 open ended requirements that could justify any level of spending to infinity and beyond, with nothing to balance it.

    Saying that spending more on defense is always the right thing to do is just foolishness and it is painfully obvious to everyone who sees it. If you think there is a limit to how much we should spend on defense – please state it. Whether it is a percentage of GDP, or a number of soldiers compared to all other countries in the world, or anything that is an upper limit to how much we should spend on the military.

    But having read many of your articles I am forced to conclude that you simply believe that more is always better, there is no limit to how much you want to spend on defense. And from that I am forced to conclude that your opinions are literally unreasonable and therefore worthless.

    • DeathByIrony

      So I suppose the question we all should be asking is: How much SHOULD we be spending on national defense?
      Once that is quantified, we can determine whether or not his desired amount is unreasonable.
      Though as it is certainly “More than we are now” many will have already drawn that conclusion.

    • DeathByIrony

      So wait, A stronger military, even if we can’t afford it?
      I hate to oversimplify the issue, but isn’t that the sort of thinking that brought down the Soviet Union?

      • dugfromthearth

        That has to be part of the calculation. If you are being invaded by Germany, any calculation of being able to afford the military spending is probably moot. If you are simply worried about the possibility of being invaded, then it becomes important. Overspending on the military is a national defense issue. If today’s military spending prevents us from having an adequate military in the future – then the military spending is weakening our national defense.

  • zahnartz62

    Bush cut taxes..took us into occupation/ nation building wars on money borrowed from China and others. We pay retail for our wars since VN, the start of our nation’s decline. I told our senator..look at Rome’s Imperial wars..they looted the invaded country to cover their military expenses. Why can’t we take Iraqi oil?? I think I read they are selling it to China. Afgan sold rights to a large copper mine I think to Japan. If they are so damn happy with us why does the US pay millions in bribes to their leaders. It is all a great costly waste of our money and has brought us into debtor nation status with nothing to show for it except the 8 Bush year gift of 2.2 trillion dollars to our richest citizens…covered by loans from China! As for SS/Medicare, I paid my way and want my benefits.. so do millions of very angry, cranky old timers!!

  • Graychin

    “What we cannot afford is to be shortsighted and to pretend that American military withdrawal from the world will somehow make us safer.”

    Straw man alert! No one is advocating that America withdraw from the world.

    If the military was allowed to determine its own needs, rather than letting Congresscritters determine those needs based on protecting stuff made in their own districts, we would have a more up-to-date and effective military – and one that is less wasteful.

    “Market-oriented lines”? What the hell does that mean? Sounds like “conservative” rhetorical boiler-plate.

  • Oldskool

    “When the Cold War ended 20 years ago, when I was Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs] and Mr. [Richard] Cheney was Secretary of Defense, we cut the defense budget by 25 percent, and we reduced the force by 500,000 active duty soldiers.”
    –Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, January 23, 2011

  • Nanotek

    “We can spend a lot on defense, after all, because we are a free and rich country, and the alternative would be much worse.

    whew! and I thought we were so broke we needed to cut Pell grants to educate the young and cut SS and Medicare to the elderly.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    being that China is now the only country we have to worry about being second to, it is absurd that we have been borrowing money from China to finance our government. It would be nice for Guardiano to acknowledge this.

    As to his 3 reasons, 1 and 3 are pretty much the same: a military that also can deter potential aggressors prevent a war from occurring in the first place mean the same thing. Get an editor.

    But to be honest, apart from his wishy washy statement about military pay; lets cut it but I am not saying lets cut it…I don’t have too many arguments with this piece. However I do wish that Europe spent far more on defense, the British and French are learning in Libya how much they are not up to snuff, and Germany has to stop using WW2 as an excuse not to fund their military…Japan I know has the problem of the US written Constitution limiting spending but Germany does not. In any event, if our European allies collectively spent more than us I would have no problem with that.

    And the other reason we spend what we do is to keep shipping lanes open. Our economy, and the worlds, relies on trade. No one else is capable of doing this, but we should still press our allies to step up.

  • baw1064

    A quote from one of David’s recent posts seems appropriate:

    a) Decide how much it costs to defend the country.

    b) Pay for it.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    “the United States spends more on just about everything”
    This is dumb and not even true, and would be irrelevant if it were true. The US spends twice as much as Japan on healthcare with worse outcomes…hmmm, I wonder why…oh yeah, because they have universal health care and the US has a mess of public funding for the oldest and sickest and private funding (with their profits) for the young and healthiest segment of the population. Talk about ass backward. Beyond this the US spends far less than most OECD countries on benefits for the poor and middle class, all so that the rich can pay far less taxes and invest that money in China.
    With Republicans screaming now that they want to get rid of most education funding, like Pell grants and the like, it would also be good if some pro defense Republicans would know that having a military that comes in fundamentally uneducated is very dangerous. Soldiers are not cannon fodder. The US educational system is a mess, prima facie evidence for that is the teabagger movement. How many teabaggers would even know what prima facie means, or even how to pronounce it.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    baw1064, it is deciding what is meant by defending our country that is difficult. How are we defending our country by having a base in Diego Garcia? We are not defending our country, we are defending our economy, and if we are spending so much on defending our economy that our economy grinds to a halt, at some point you have to step back, if only to wake up our own allies to pay their fair share.
    We can certainly defend our country proper for far, far, far less. It is not like Mexico is going to invade (by which I mean the country, not the citizens who have already invaded enmasse).
    And it is the manner in which we decide to defend ourselves, it is not like there is but one ready made manual out there. Personally I have a radically different view of future military engagements, one far more reliant on local populaces, this is how the commies were so successful for so long, the only reason they failed is because after they won they had no effective economy to offer their people. We are not going to get involved in massive long term land wars in Asia or Europe, lets not even pretend we will, the only place it could happen is in Korea and no way in hell is China going to let the Kims start a war that they know would likely spiral out of control to a nuclear conflagration. Guardiano might want to pretend we can have a Korean war redux, but I am positive the Chinese would put a bullet in the head of every Kim family member to prevent that.

    • baw1064

      I should explain myself a little more. Yes, deciding exactly what is necessary for national defense is a complicated subject, one which will be the subject of much debate. That’s as it should be, because getting it right is pretty important.

      My frustration tends to be with people who want to do a) in the list I quoted without doing b). I.e., if something it truly necessary to the national defense, you’d better not complain about how much it costs, or how much your taxes need to go up to cover it. If you’re not willing to fork out the money, then I question how much you believe it’s really needed. This by the way was why I got exasperated with both Reagan and GWB. Both increased defense spending by a lot (arms buildup in Reagan’s case, Iraq War in Bush’s), but without leveling with the American people about how much it would cost or saying, essentially that it was their patriotic duty to spend this money for national defense.

      So my question for Guardiano is, “are you willing to make the argument that taxes should to be raised, if necessary, to fund these programs?”

  • think4yourself

    @ JG.

    This is one of your better articles. You have at least provided some sort of argument as to why we need additional military spending or at least exempt the military from cuts. I also agree with you (I think?), that military pay and benefits should be a part of the equation. I understand that having a conversation about how much we pay for care for people we send in harm’s way is a difficult conversation, but worth exploring.

    I do have some questions comments:

    “439 Billion in cuts since Obama has become President”. Can you source this please? Here are the DoD Budget requests coevering hte last several years http://comptroller.defense.gov/budgetindex.html and Obama’s spending exceeds Bush’s both in total spending and for basic military (not including for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

    As to your points:

    1.We require a military that is second to none – We have that. Given we spend more than most of the world combined we should. My question is, if the military had cuts of 10% (no one is proposing that) and we only spent as much as say the next 13 largest countries, wouldn’t we still have a military second to none?

    2.We require a technologically advanced military that cannot only win wars and deter adversaries, but which can do so with a minimal loss of human life.

    - absolutely. And we have used better technology (don’t see too many other nations with Predator Drones and Stealth Helicopters). Having the military subject to budget issues along with the overall budget doesn’t necessarily change that.

    3.We require that our military do much more than simply win wars. We require that our military maintain an active forward presence aboard precisely to prevent a war from occurring in the first place.

    - Yes, we do that. Perhaps too much. Do we really need all those bases around the world? Shouldn’t South Korea do more instead of us keeping 35,000 troops there for another 50 years? Again, would a 10% cut in the military budget (for example) eliminate our presence around the world? Or perhaps change the mission or require some of our NATO allies to foot some of the expense.

    You make the argument that much of our technology is obsolete. Navy has fewer ships than since 1916 and Air Force average craft age is 25 years. I could also argue that the changing nature of warfare has been the issue, not money spent on Modernization. Also, many of the ships, planes and platforms have been modernized and updated to use new technology (for grins I went to http://defensetech.org/category/navy/ and looked around. This part is about the Tomahawk missle of which 2,000 have been fired of which the Royal Submarine Force is the only other Tomahawk user than the US).

    No one is arguing that we shouldn’t always be looking to better our military. We should. That means investing in new technology, better training, etc. Having said that, spending less money than we do today doesn’t make our military inferior. It should cause our military to find ways to do it better. As an example it costs the terrorists very little money to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks. Attacks that arguably have cost the US and the rest of the world trillions of dollars and changed life for a generation of Americans. The attackers used their wits to perpetrate a horrific act – not billions of dollars. So more money isn’t necessarily the answer to military effectiveness.

    • Frumplestiltskin

      good post, except for this: Shouldn’t South Korea do more instead of us keeping 35,000 troops there for another 50 years?
      The troops there are a trip wire, nothing more. A few hundred troops, or none, and we would not likely react. 35,000 US body bags would have Americans screaming for blood. The North Koreans and, more importantly, the Chinese know this. The South Koreans could roll over the North Koreans, but this would be after Seoul was leveled by North Korean artillery. The North Koreans have a huge army, but hopelessly outdated.

  • Houndentenor

    How about this:

    Let’s ask the generals what items are in their budgets that they don’t actually need. A lot of defense spending is pork. A lot of it what we need to defend our country or execute three current wars. Who would know what items are necessary better than the people who run the military. We can’t trust Congress to do this. Congress is the reason we have pork in the budgets of every department, including Defense.

    Actually, why not do this with every department? Certainly it makes sense to cut the fat before we cut the rest.

    • hlsmlane

      “Let’s ask the generals . . . .” Methinks houndentenor misapprehends the budget process. The guy on the ground always asks for the moon, knowing full well that the review process is going to cut his request. And I can’t think of the last time anyone ever asked to be zeroed out.

  • talkradiosucks.com

    Still waiting for him to respond to the critiques of his previous piece. My face is beginning to turn blue.

    Will he ever tell us who pays him? Or why we should just accept his premise that the US has to spend a trillion dollars a year on “defence” that isn’t defence at all?

    Probably not.

    • TerryF98

      I am still waiting for him to answer the question that I have asked in each of his bleating posts.

      Gauardiano will not answer the question because to do so would end the need for him to continue to write this tosh time after tine.

  • rbottoms

    market oriented lines

    One thing I can be sure of when I am writing software, Steve Jobs isn’t going to try to kill me with an IED. Market oriented anything and the pay & benefits of our soldiers should have nothing to do with each other.

    Republicans, stupid or heartless?

    You decide.

    • Raskolnik

      That stuck out to me as well. He is essentially advocating that we move our military to an explicitly mercenary system. There are so many problems with that I really don’t know where to begin. Has he ever read any history at all, ever, in his life?

  • pnwguy

    I can think of one reform on the pay and benefits question. How about retirement income doesn’t start until they reach 65 or 67, like Social Security? Unless a serviceman or woman was disabled in service, why should they be collecting a “pension” anytime sooner than the bulk of the nation’s citizens? VA health benefits might be different, especially since there are numerous health issues related to service injuries that could last a lifetime. I could also see many of those as terrible “pre-existing” conditions that would have disqualified care pre-ACA. But as Guardiano makes the point, getting retirement checks at 37 is ridiculous. Most go out and get other jobs and “double dip”.

    Also, there are thousands of service people in the military that hold support positions that have similar equivalents in private industry. While every member of the armed forces might be forced in an attack to command field arms, a lot of people are essentially serving as bookkeepers, truck drivers, cooks, and such, in positions FAR removed from harms way in most service rotations. Giving them the same benefits as combat forces seems overly generous. Make the combat premium much higher for those in theater, and less generous for those whose positions are more routine.

    I don’t want to dishonor anyone’s service to the defense of the country. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t apply any scrutiny to pay and benefits.

  • Bunker555

    Hey JG, when was the last time we won a war?

    “2 We require a technologically advanced military that cannot only win wars and deter adversaries, but which can do so with a minimal loss of human life. Consequently, we spend money to save lives — and we wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, want it any other way.”

  • Frumplestiltskin

    pnwguy, I dunno about that. A Gunnery sarg. ain’t exactly going to find many great job opportunities in the middle age, nor are they really up for combat when they are older. 20 to 25 years of an active duty soldier is like 40 for an office worker. Yes, I get your point about skill positions, my cousin learned how to run a boiler in the Navy and after he got out he had no problem getting a job, however he was not a career soldier. Now you can be right that the pension does not have to be as generous, however you put the time in you should get it. Do you really want a 45 year old man to have to wait until he was 65 but essentially be paid like a 25 year old, if he can get a job? A pension can insure that the military will have career soldiers, otherwise everyone but those destined for high rank would bail after a stint or two so as to not harm their private sector earnings long term.

    It is kind of the same way with teachers, without tenure I would not teach because my skill set is pretty much useless outside of the school. In the private sector, an accountant is an accountant pretty much everywhere. When you are in the private sector you can develop contacts that can come in handy down the line.

  • SFTor1

    John, you are not paying attention.

    The new cost-cutting fervor in Washington will lead to a smaller military. There is no question about that. Much smaller.

    John, the days of a network of U.S. military bases around the world are over. Generous programs to develop weapons that have no one to fight: over. Fleets of ultra-modern ships and airplanes at our beck and call? Not so much anymore.

    We’re broke, remember?

    In the future the U.S. will have to do what it used to in the face of a major conflict: mobilize.

    Dwight Eisenhower understood that every dollar spent on the military was taken from ordinary Americans. Mr. Eisenhower was a moral man. Where is the like of him now that we need such a one?

  • Raskolnik

    John, this is a terrible post. All you have given are extremely vague generalizations, with absolutely nothing by way of response to the detailed suggestions for cuts that I and others have made. To pose the questions yet again:

    1) Are you saying there is no way we can cut the JSF? Even its VTOL variant? Because there are many, inside the Pentagon and on both sides of the aisle, who disagree with you if that is the case.

    2) Why must we garrison Europe, especially Western Europe? I can understand not wanting to leave South Korea or Okinawa, but what possible justification is there for the United States to have bases all over Germany and France?

    3) Those “technological advantages” you mention are important, but very few of them come from military R&D, which is extremely wasteful and often simply duplicates existing technology in a proprietary fashion. As I said in my comment to your previous post, the way to stay ahead of the Chinese (in particular) is with advances in radar and composite materials science. From what I understand, military R&D is still focused on battlefield connectivity for soldiers using a proprietary network, as well as various high-tech weapons systems for things like self-propelled artillery and sonic stun rays–but nothing (at least nothing I have heard about) in radar or composite materials science.

    • talkradiosucks.com

      “All you have given are extremely vague generalizations, with absolutely nothing by way of response to the detailed suggestions for cuts that I and others have made.”

      He never answers those questions. Doing so would make him an honest analyst, instead of a shill and propagandist.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    Why must we garrison Europe, especially Western Europe?
    For one, it is far easier to project power overseas. Second, many of our soldiers who are injured go to Germany for medical treatment. Now I don’t know if we need 26 bases and have 75,000 or so in Germany, but we definitely should have some. We also have no soldiers in France. We also have the bases because we do cross training exercises. my beef is the sheer number of them in the US just to satisfy Congressmen. We also have bases all over the world in places I don’t think we should which help prop up tyrants, or puts us in a bad situation when there are insurgencies.

    • Demosthenes

      I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have any bases in Germany, just that we can get by without the extensive network that we have now and not suffer appreciably in terms of national security. Surely it is a help for power projection if we have overseas bases. The question is what are our real-world strategic needs and how do we accomodate those needs with real-world solutions?

      (Raskolnik is doing a lessado ;) )

  • rbottoms

    I can think of one reform on the pay and benefits question. How about retirement income doesn’t start until they reach 65 or 67, like Social Security?

    Really, how about you move your goddamn family around the world and do a job where they put you in jail if you decide to just quit?

    So not only are Chickenhawks unwilling to go f*****g fight, they want to tell the man who was ready to go get shot at and blown up for his country that he should work at a shitty security guard job for twenty years after getting out so John can have his aircraft carriers.

    Assholes.

  • DeathByIrony

    Guardiano continues to be a delightful taste of 2003.

  • japhi

    A former soldier lobbying for budget cuts that effective active and retired soldiers. Well played JG.

  • talkradiosucks.com

    I support increased funding for military research to make spy satellites powerful enough to find John Guardiano’s spine.

  • Otto

    “To be clear, I am not recommending that we cut military pay and veterans’ benefits. But …”

    The use of the word “but”, such as in the quoted line, almost always means the author’s true intention is exactly the opposite of the phrase that preceeded the “but”. It’s usually also followed by the author trying to explain away why he feels that way.

    Keep that in mind whenever you see the word “but” used, especially when in a conconction like the JG one quoted above.

    “It’s not that I think blah blah blah, but, I think blah blah blah for this reason,” is the literal translation of that sentence construction.

    Oh, and this is just another example of a sorry-assed conservative with a hate-on for servicemen and servicewomen.

  • baw1064

    “3) Those “technological advantages” you mention are important, but very few of them come from military R&D, which is extremely wasteful and often simply duplicates existing technology in a proprietary fashion. As I said in my comment to your previous post, the way to stay ahead of the Chinese (in particular) is with advances in radar and composite materials science. From what I understand, military R&D is still focused on battlefield connectivity for soldiers using a proprietary network, as well as various high-tech weapons systems for things like self-propelled artillery and sonic stun rays–but nothing (at least nothing I have heard about) in radar or composite materials science.”

    At the risk of being pedantic, military R&D does include those areas you mention, and a lot more. What tends to be the most visible in terms of R&D are big ticket things that are going out into the field in the short term. But longer term technological leadership is important, too, as you say. It’s not being neglected.

    As one example…
    Radar:
    http://www.nrl.navy.mil/radar/index.php
    Materials science:
    http://www.nrl.navy.mil/research/directorates-divisions/materials-science/

    • Demosthenes

      I don’t think we’re in disagreement. My point is that it is a question of priorities. The problem with JG is that when he is asked what his priorities are he says “everything.” That is not a good military strategy, to say nothing of its feasibility as economic (or foreign) policy.

      • baw1064

        Agreed. There’s also the question of how the level of defense spending that we (collectively) judge to be appropriate gets paid for. Guardiano’s twitter posts also seem to indicate a Tea Party fiscal outlook. A government that gets strangled in the bathtub by Grover Norquist isn’t going to have a competent military.