By Zbigniew Mazurak
As Republicans ponder what to do about America's budget deficit and gargantuan public debt, liberals and libertarians are calling on them to agree to severely reduce spending on the most important function of the federal government: defense.
Before we explore the reasons why the Congress should not do so, let's first define defense spending.
Opponents of a strong defense use the term loosely; for some of them, such as Jess Bachmann, almost everything related to "national security" (including the VA budget) constitutes defense spending. Some believe that America's oversized castle-embassies and other DOS-administered programs qualify as defense expenditures. However, these things have nothing to do with the defense of the country, and the vast majority of them aren't even produced, requested, or administered by the military.
The real defense spending is the core budget of the DOD. In FY2010, it amounted to $534 billion; for FY2011, the DOD has requested $549 billion. Neither this budget nor any other has been approved by the Congress yet.
On top of that, in FY2010, as during previous years, there was a supplemental for the GWOT ($130 billion). Total FY2010 military expenditures by the DOD therefore amounted to $664 billion. However, it should be noted, that annual GWOT supplementals are used not to maintain or strengthen the military, but rather to wage two wars of nation-building, one of which ended in August. These supplementals can therefore hardly be called defense spending. Military spending is a more appropriate term.
Now, with the definition of defense spending provided, let's consider the reasons against reductions of defense spending.
First, as Heritage Foundation analyst Jim Talent has correctly observed, "defense is an obligation, not an option." The Constitution's Fourth Article obliges the Feds to protect the states against "invasion," the Preamble clearly states that one of the reasons why the federal government was created is to provide for the common defense, and the Founding Fathers' writings also explicitly state that defense is the first duty of the federal government. There are dozens of functions the federal government is not allowed to perform and dozens of unconstitutional agencies, but defense is not among them.
Second, defense spending is already low (and too low) -- both in real dollar numbers and as a percentage of GDP. During the last sixteen fiscal years, defense spending has been constantly below 4% of GDP; this sustained low level of defense spending is the lowest since FY1948. In FY2010, defense spending amounted to 3.65% of GDP. Even total military spending (that $664-billion figure) constitutes just 4.5% of America's GDP of $14.61 trillion (even the CATO Institute has acknowledged the 4.5% of GDP proportion). In fact, 4.5% of GDP was the level of military spending during the nadir of the Carter era (FY1979). Defense appropriations constituted just 14.87% of the FY2010 total federal budget ($3.591 trillion); even total military spending constituted just 18.5% of that budget. The FY2010 cost of the SS program was $696 billion (scheduled to rise to $730 billion in FY2011), while FY2010 welfare spending was $888 billion.
Third, given defense's low share of the federal budget, its small size relative to other categories of federal spending, and its slow rise over the last three fiscal years ($506 billion in FY2008, $513 bn in FY2009, $534 billion in FY2010, in real terms), simultaneous with a rapid increase of total federal spending and the budget deficit, we can see that it is not defense spending that caused America's fiscal woes. Indeed, the post-FY2007 increases of defense spending amounted to just 5.81% of total deficit growth ($889 billion) and 8% of total federal spending growth witnessed since FY2007, when the budget deficit equaled only $161 billion. Brian Riedl of the HF has documented the post-FY2007 history of the budget in more detail.
Fourth, because defense spending constitutes a small share of the federal budget and did not cause America's fiscal woes, reducing it will not even ameliorate, let alone solve, the budget deficit problem. Cutting annual defense spending by $100 billion would've reduced the budget deficit only by a smidgen, from $1.29 trillion (which it actually was) to $1.19 trillion. If the DOD was abolished tomorrow, there would still be a huge annual budget deficit ($756 billion).
The only way to reduce the budget deficit and to balance the budget is to tackle the real culprit: bloated domestic spending, including spending on things the federal government shouldn't be handling at all. The Congress can easily reduce spending quickly by eliminating unneeded and unconstitutional discretionary agencies and programs (e.g. its 2,001 subsidy projects). For the long term, the only solution is a significant reduction of entitlement costs.
Fifth, while defense cuts would not eliminate or even significantly reduce budget deficits, they would wreck a military already ravaged by two wars, twelve years of nonstop defense cuts (1989-2001), and a 21-year-long equipment procurement holiday which still continues, because for 21 years, politicians have been closing crucial equipment programs en masse and reducing weapon orders by the hundreds. As a result, the USAF flies fighter planes produced during the 1970s, tankers made during the 1950s, and air-lifters produced during the 1960s. The Navy has the smallest ship fleet since 1916 and a sixty-plane shortage of fighter planes.
Congress has been delaying the modernization of the military for two decades. Modernization cannot be delayed any longer. Even the bravest, best-trained, best-led troopers cannot win without high-quality equipment. Nor can the renovations of the Navy's facilities be delayed any longer.
Last but not least, defense cuts would likely not save taxpayers a cent in the long term. James Jay Carafano has recently written about how the Feds dithered during the 1790s whether to provide for a strong defense and delayed funding for the Navy while Barbary pirates imposed huge ransom demands on the American merchant fleet -- demands that cost the U.S. twice as much as the Navy's first six frigates did.
After the U.S. disarmed during the 1920s, it had to rebuild its military and confront Japan. After WW2, the U.S. again unilaterally disarmed, thus inviting the Communists to perpetrate aggression, which they did. Then, after the Vietnam War, the U.S. (like many other Western countries) drastically reduced its defense spending, thus emboldening the Soviet Union and encouraging the Communists to attack other countries, which they did (1975, 1979).
"Defense on the cheap" is no defense at all. It only invites aggressors to commit actions from which they'd otherwise refrain. It would be less expensive for the U.S. to maintain its current level of defense investments than to drastically reduce that level now and face the task of rearming sometime later. (Not rearming later would be even worse.)
It should be noted that providing for the common defense is different from waging wars of nation-building, building castle embassies (which aren't financed by the DOD), or providing lavish aid programs to foreign countries (again, not financed by the Pentagon).
But the Congress must provide for a strong military, which means that the U.S. cannot afford to reduce its core defense budget. Time for the Congress to face this fact.
Zbigniew Mazurak blogs at zbigniewmazurak.wordpress.com. His book, In Defense of US Defense Spending, is forthcoming.
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