Bombs Away: Why the Pentagon Doesn't Need an Increased Defense Budget

"Congress should pass the defense budget on time and...insist that the Pentagon finally make the hard choices to manage those funds correctly."

As fiscal year 2016, which begins on October 1, 2015, draws ever closer, the subject of how much and how America should spend on defense, given the threats and fiscal challenges this nation faces, has once again become front and center. Steadily increasing chaos and security challenges internationally have come into sharper focus, while in the political realm, most of the Republican candidates for president are making the size of the defense budget a campaign issue. Meanwhile, President Obama has vowed to veto a federal budget that gives the Pentagon relief from the budget control caps that does not do the same for the nondefense portion of the federal discretionary budget. Although FY 2016 is almost upon us, it does not appear that the Congress will pass a budget before the start of the fiscal year, forcing all federal agencies, including the Pentagon, to operate on a continuing resolution.

According to the testimony given at the confirmation hearings for the five new members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the international situation has never been more chaotic. They see Russia as the greatest threat, followed by China, North Korea, Iran and ISIL. The new Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, echoes these claims and goes so far as to call Russia an existential threat. Moreover, the new service chiefs and most of the Republican candidates argue that, under the Obama administration, defense spending has been cut so drastically we cannot deal with the threats we now face.

But the real issue is not the amount we spend on defense but how we are spending it. In fact, the current level of defense spending is more than adequate. The defense budget for FY 2016 amounts to about $600 billion. In real terms, this exceeds the amount we spent on average in the Cold War and accounts for between one third and one half of the world's total military expenditures, depending upon whether one uses purchasing power parity or just straight dollars. Moreover, when one adds in the amount our allies spend, we account for somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of global military expenditures. Our greatest strategic threat, Russia, spends about $80 billion, less than our Saudi Arabian ally. Moreover, this amount is less than it seems, as the decline in the value of the ruble and the price of oil has had to delay Russian plans for modernizing its force. Even China spends only about one third of what we do.

But advocates of increasing defense spending claim that the portion of the gross domestic product spent on defense is less than at any time since the pre-Korean War days. What does such an argument say about our needs and strategy? If the GDP goes down and the threat goes up, should we decrease the Pentagon budget? Since when is defense (or any other area for that matter) entitled to a fixed share of our nation’s economy?

Advocates of increasing defense spending above the levels proposed by Obama also argue that since defense is such a small share of the overall federal budget it should not be cut to help us reduce our deficit. Do they want instead to continue to slash funding for areas like the highway trust fund, the size of the foreign service, medical research, and all other areas that did not experience the huge growth that the Department of Defense did between 2010 and 2010, when the budget control act was passed? Are Republican candidates not aware that these areas also contribute to our national security?

The chiefs are right. The main enemy is chaos. But in order to tackle the chaos in the world, we must first tackle the chaos in the Pentagon. For example, if Secretary Carter believes Russia is an existential threat, why is he continuing the “pivot to the Pacific" a policy he inaugurated when he was Deputy secretary of defense, and decreasing the percentage of the budget going to our land forces, who would be the most likely to deal with the threat from Russia?

Second, any of the Republican candidates are urging that we must urgently add more might to our nation’s military. However, these arguments for more and more forces aren’t connected to any strategy, nor any idea of how to pay the enormous costs. For example, some candidates have argued that we need to increase the size of the Navy from its current level of 275 ships to as many as 350. But they do not tell us for what, and when, and where. Why 300, and not 400 or 200? What about the mix of ships? Do we want 25 or 50 more littoral combat ships or, or more Arleigh Burke destroyers, or aircraft carriers, or submarines, or small coastal patrol ships? Finally these candidates ignore the fact that since it takes a long time to build a ship, the size of today's Navy is more a result of decisions made by the Bush administration. In fact, as a result of decisions made by President Obama the Navy will grow to over 308 ships by early in the next decade.

The supporters of increasing defense spending cannot give a satisfactory answer to why it is necessary to spend more than $350 billion over the next decade to modernize all three legs of the triad—and hundreds of billions more after that? Why have we waited so long to do this? Why do we not do it when the nondefense budget was essentially doubling in real terms in the first decade of this century? And why, in this day and age, do we still need nearly 5000 nuclear weapons?