Overpaying the Pentagon

When George Bush Senior's administration decided that the end of the Cold War made it safe to reduce the defense budget and the size of our armed forces, many neoconservatives and defense hawks, some of whom were serving in that administration, argued against the move. They wanted the United States to maintain military dominance in order to prevent the emergence of a rival power to challenge American hegemony.

Since the attacks of September 11, and the promulgation of the George W. Bush doctrine of unilateral military preemption a year later, many of these same individuals are now calling for an increase of as much as $100 billion a year in defense spending and restoring the size of the active duty military force to its 1990 level. They base their case on four arguments.

First, the U.S. military is engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, the Clinton administration reduced the defense budget so much more than the first Bush administration had anticipated that the readiness of our forces has deteriorated to dangerous levels. According to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Bill Clinton witlessly accelerated and deepened the cuts proposed by Bush Senior. Third, the war against terrorism requires a force structure and defense budget of Cold War proportions. Fourth, because defense presently consumes only 3.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, we can afford to spend much more on defense. Even if one accepts the national-security strategy of the Bush administration as the framework for formulating the force structure and defense budget, these justifications are overstated and misleading.

The costs of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq are not being charged to the $400 billion defense budget. These costs are funded in a supplemental appropriation, which is added to the existing budget. This year these operations will add at least an additional $100 billion to the defense budget. We essentially give the military a $400 billion budget, but we have to pay extra to use it.

Clinton not only did not accelerate the cuts proposed by the first Bush administration, he actually spent $2 billion more on defense than Bush Senior had projected for the 1994-1999 time frame. More importantly, the military that the current President Bush and his national-security team have correctly praised for performing so brilliantly on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq was bequeathed to them by Clinton. The Bush defense budget went into effect Oct. 1, 2002, nine months after major fighting ended in Afghanistan and only five months before actual combat began in Iraq. None of the funds in this budget has had time to have any impact on the caliber of the men and women who went to war, their readiness for battle or the weapons they used. Based on the rhetoric of the Bush team and the 2000 campaign, one would not have believed that the Clinton military could overthrow two regimes with fewer battlefield casualties than the Marines suffered in Lebanon in 1983.

The current defense budget, even if one adjusts for inflation, is already above Cold War levels and has been rising significantly since 1998, when it reached its post-Cold War low of "only" $300 billion. Even the $300 billion figure accounted for 40 percent of the world's military expenditures that year and was higher in real terms than Richard Nixon's last defense budget in 1975.

This nation is already spending 10 percent more than it did on average during the Cold War and more than it spent on average during the Vietnam and Korean wars.

Moreover, the total number of full-time employees on the Pentagon payroll is not much lower that it was when the Berlin Wall came down. The number of people in the active force and on the civilian payroll declined from 3 million to 2.1 million over the last decade. But the number of defense contractors, who perform tasks such as providing security at Central Command headquarters in Qatar, has grown by 700,000. In addition, the Pentagon has kept more than 200,000 military reservists on full active duty since September 2001.

It is difficult to argue that the nation can afford to spend more on defense when its annual budget deficit, excluding the Social Security Trust Fund, is currently running over $600 billion -- or 5.7 percent of the nation's GDP. While defense takes a lower percentage of the GDP than it did during the Cold War, it already consumes more than half of the discretionary funds in the federal budget.

This is not to say that the U.S. military does not have problems or challenges. But these problems are not caused by the amount of money it receives. This becomes clear when one analyzes some of the large programs being funded. Each of the services continues to waste significant sums on Cold War relics that are not needed to wage the war on terrorism or even to enter a conventional conflict on the Korean peninsula. President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have argued that some of these programs should be canceled. But so far they have refused to spend the political capital necessary to take on the military industrial complex to do so.

The Air Force, for example, is spending $70 billion to buy 295 F/A-22 Raptors -- a Cold War-era fighter plane that is behind schedule, over budget, plagued by technical problems and designed to take on sophisticated Soviet fighters rather than the modest regional fighter forces it is likely to encounter today. The Navy plans to buy 30 Virginia-class submarines for $74 billion, even though its current submarine fleet is the best in the world and has no perceivable enemy; moreover, many submarines are being retired before the end of their useful lives. The Army is spending more than $16 billion to purchase 650 Comanche helicopters, despite the fact that the average price for the helicopter has more than doubled, and that the Army has had to eliminate two of the helicopter's primary missions (transport and attack) since starting the program. This makes each Comanche a $30 million reconnaissance platform, a function that could easily be performed more cheaply and effectively by unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Predator. Finally, the Marines want to spend $46 billion to buy 458 V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft despite their high cost and continuing technical and safety problems, which have already resulted in the deaths of 23 Marines.

The Pentagon also overspends on its strategic nuclear forces and missile-defense programs. The Bush administration wishes to develop a new, smaller, low-yield nuclear weapon, the Bunker Buster, and continues to fund a Cold War nuclear arsenal and the nuclear-weapons complex necessary to maintain it. As a result, the defense budget for offensive nuclear forces exceeds $25 billion, and the nuclear-weapons labs are spending 50 percent more than they did on average during the Cold War.

The Pentagon is spending an additional $9 billion a year on a national missile-defense program to protect this country from the least likely threat to the homeland. And later this year, it will begin actual deployment of a ground-based national missile-defense system that has not been fully tested, relies on failed and immature technology, and could eventually cost $100 billion.

There are other areas of potential savings in the budget that would not undermine our military capability. The Pentagon will spend $6 billion to $8 billion more to lease 100 tankers from Boeing than if it purchased the planes. And the Army spends about $5 billion a year to maintain eight Army National Guard combat divisions even though the vast majority of these units are undeployable and would be called up only for World War III-style combat on a continental scale. Only three brigades, or one division equivalent, are deployable because they train with active-duty divisions (two of these enhanced brigades will be called up and sent to Iraq). The $4 billion saved from eliminating all but these three brigades would more than pay for moving peacekeeping forces, such as civil-affairs units and military police, from the reserves to the active force.

Thus, even if one accepts the Bush doctrine, the Pentagon does not need to add funds to the existing budget. By making sensible decisions, it could easily reduce its budget by 25 percent. If this country had a more realistic national-security strategy, the reductions could be even greater.

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