On Monday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will unveil a six-year spending plan that proposes to increase military expenditures to the unprecedented level of half a trillion dollars annually by the end of the decade. Under the plan, the government’s budget for the Defense Department plus nuclear weapons programs in the Department of Energy would hit nearly $400 billion in fiscal 2004, and then grow by about $20 billion annually to surpass $500 billion in fiscal 2009.
Much of the early commentary on the proposed budget will undoubtedly focus on the scale of spending — about $2.7 trillion between 2004 and 2009. That seems like an unimaginably vast amount of money, but in fact the Pentagon is only proposing to spend as much resources through the end of the decade as the economy currently generates every fiscal quarter. If the administration’s growth projections for the economy prove valid, then the proposed level of defense spending in 2004 would represent a mere 3.4% of gross domestic product (and 16.6% of overall federal spending — about one out of every six dollars).
What’s remarkable about Secretary Rumsfeld’s proposed budget isn’t its size, but the range of activities it manages to reconcile. With barely half the share of economic wealth claimed by the Pentagon during the Cold War, the Bush Administration has figured out how to: maintain continuous forward presence around the world; field a force capable of coping simultaneously with multiple large-scale contingencies, including the war on terrorism; sustain a uniformly high level of readiness and training; satisfy the quality-of-life and income aspirations of the all-volunteer force; fund the long-overdue modernization of the aging Cold War arsenal; and dedicate tens of billions of additional dollars to the transformation of military capabilities to meet future challenges.
The success with which the budget delivers on transformation is particularly striking. For two years, the military services have been living in continuous fear that Rumsfeld would cut critical modernization programs in order to fund longer-term, trendier initiatives such as unmanned aircraft. But Rumsfeld has proved to be a judicious manager, recognizing transformational potential where it existed in the programs he inherited (like the F/A-22 multirole fighter), forcing changes where faster improvement was feasible (like the CVN-21 aircraft carrier), and killing programs whose potential was too limited (like Crusader).
The new programs the budget funds — such as laser satellite communications and the conversion of Trident ballistic-missile submarines to conventional roles — really are transformational. And while some may question the warfighting potential of unmanned aerial vehicles, it’s hard to complain about spending one-half of one-percent of the military budget on what might prove to be revolutionary technology. The bottom line is that the administration has delivered on everything that Mr. Bush said he would do for the military when he ran for President — including showing some imagination.
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