The Skeptics

A Unified Security Budget for the United States

Since 2004, a task force of national-security experts and budget analysts have joined forces to make the case for a unified security budget, one that rebalances U.S. security resources between offense (military forces), defense (homeland security), and prevention (nonmilitary international engagement). The latest report of the USB builds on this past work, but includes some new elements that I think are worthy of particular attention. (Full disclosure: I have worked with and respect many of the members of the USB task force, including principal authors Miriam Pemberton and Larry Korb, and was a member of the task force last year. I did not participate this year.)

One need not agree with all of the claims in the report to derive valuable insights from it. For example, I doubt that prevention works as well as the authors claim, or that it would work much better if the budget for nonmilitary aspects of security were increased dramatically.  I question the wisdom of increasing federal spending on alternative energy. I agree that we spend too much money on the military, but think that if we ever actually reduce the Pentagon's budget, those savings should be returned to taxpayers through tax cuts and deficit reduction (to the extent that deficits are a form of deferred taxation).

But these are mere quibbles. The report advances three major arguments that I endorse wholeheartedly.

1) Our concepts of security, which is to say our beliefs about what makes us secure, are too heavily weighted toward the military. The disparity is reflected in the annual budgets for DoD, DHS, State, and other national security agencies. The federal government spends $12 engaging the world militarily vs. every one dollar spent on all other forms of peaceful, noncoercive engagement. This doesn't account for hundreds of billions of dollars in private, nongovernmental engagement, from contributions by NGOs and private charities to spendng by businesses and tourists, but the fact remains: the U.S. military's budget dwarfs that of any other entity, private or public. It is inevitable, therefore, that the military crowds out other forms of global engagement.

2) The vast sums allocated to the military do not necessarily make for a more capable military. As with past reports, the USB has compiled an invaluable list of troubled or very costly weapons systems that should be scrutinized, or killed outright. These include the Virginia Class submarine, the V-22 Osprey, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The authors revisit personnel costs and force structure. They call for additional reductions in the nuclear arsenal. And they note that spending for research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) has grown by more than 50 percent in real terms since 2001. A cut of $10 billion would leave the Pentagon with an RDT&E budget larger than at the peak of the Reagan build up in 1987. I have relied on the USB's insights and analysis for my own research, and will surely do so again.

3) If we are serious about shifting resources away from the military, we must review its roles and missions. This section, not included in previous reports, notes how the U.S. military's mission set has expanded dramatically since the 1990s, and especially post-9/11. Washington policy makers have become more ambitious, both in terms of what they aim to accomplish and where they aim to accomplish it. The military is the primary instrument that they employ. The report asks: To what end?

The increased dependence on military power for purposes other than simple defense and deterrence raises issues of effect and effectiveness. These must be taken into account when trying to figure an optimal balance among security instruments.

How reliably and at what cost does a particular type of military activity produce an intended effect? And what is the corresponding risk of negative collateral effects? (my emphasis)

This section, drafted by Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives (and also the principal author of the Sustainable Defense Task Force report), is particularly insightful. Conetta candidly assesses three broad objectives for which U.S. military power is often deemed essential—threat prevention; "environment shaping"; and counter-insurgency, nation building and military assistance—and concludes that the underlying rationales for each are less than airtight. Rather than republishing the passages at length here, I encourage you to read the report.

My thanks and congratulations go out to all of the members of the USB task force for their work, but especially to Miriam and Larry for their leadership of this project over the years.