Defending Defense Spending In An Era Of Mounting Budget Deficits

Last month, the deficit commission recommended some $100 billion in cuts to the defense budget over the next decade. Since then, the idea that of course defense spending would have to bear some of the burden of eliminating the deficit has become axiomatic in Washington. Even pro-defense conservatives are running for cover, hiding behind the Obama Administration’s budget which posits one percent real growth after inflation and the $100 billion of savings through greater efficiencies promised by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

It is a mistake for those who advocate a strong defense to take such a defeatist perspective. There is a case to be made for both fiscal responsibility and maintaining defense spending at a level that matches what we ask the military to do.

The American people have an expectation that the federal government will ensure their personal and collective security. The former is achieved by sound money, protection of private property, balanced budgets and the promotion of economic growth. The latter is attained by fielding a military that can deter or defeat all enemies. This is what the people expect from their government. It is the government’s singular responsibility. The Constitution says that one of the essential purposes of government is to provide for the common defense. Among the enumerated powers of Congress are to raise and support armies and to provide and maintain navies.

Current concerns regarding mounting deficits had led some to posit that Americans’ personal economic security and national security must be at odds at least with respect to defense spending. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen has warned that a weak economy is the greatest threat to America’s security. Very true. Yet, our current economic travails should not be interpreted as requiring reduced spending on national defense. The reality is that defense spending contributes relatively little to the deficit problem. Moreover, if economic weakness is one of the problems that cause aggressors to behave belligerently towards the United States, maintaining a strong defense could counteract this tendency. Moreover, what would be the good of strengthening our economic security at the expense of national security if at the end of that process we faced hegemonic powers seeking to control the Middle East’s oil or our trade with the Far East? This is the path that Great Britain and the United States took in the 1930s. The result was not peace and prosperity. Therefore, the pursuit of deficit reduction must not be at the expense of national security.

For more than sixty years, U.S. national security has required a military that can protect Americans and their interests, investments abroad and international trade and beat its opponents. This is what deters wars. When you don’t have adequately funded military we experience Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and improvised explosive device attacks. Or America suffers from the hollow military of the 1970s and the debacle of Desert One. Yes, such a defense is expensive. But it is cheap in terms of insurance against catastrophe. Our forward deployed military protects trillions of dollars in US investments and international trade and tens of thousands of citizens abroad. We need a military second to none. This is what providing for the common defense means.

This will also keep faith with those who stand in harms way. Can we really make the case to them they do not deserve the best equipment, aircraft, ships and vehicles that are superior to those of prospective adversaries? Those who advocate buying F-16s instead of F-35s need to explain to our pilots why it is alright for them to risk their lives in aircraft that are not superior to the best available to our enemies.

An adequate defense is expensive. But we can have that defense while still dealing with deficits. Without increasing defense spending we can make it more efficient and effective. Secretary Gates has proposed a plan to save $100 billion, while supporting troops and modernizing their equipment. An efficient defense is also one that creates private sector jobs rather than insourcing that work to the public or government industrial base. If this level of efficiency can be achieved, overall defense spending can be held to the levels proposed by the 2011 budget: one percent over inflation. Because the cost of supporting a modern military is generally several percent higher the overall inflation rate, this means that defense spending would decline in real terms by one or two percent. Thus, over ten years the real cost of maintaining the world’s best military would be reduced by approximately $50 billion compared to projections based on historic growth rates. Couple $50 billion in reduced spending with $100 billion in inefficiencies eliminated and you have a substantial contribution to deficit reduction without risking national security.