The Sky Is Falling

by , February 10, 2012

Gordon England, deputy secretary of defense under Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, has opined in The Washington Post that the sky is once again falling as a result of proposed Pentagon budget cuts. According to England, “Further budget cuts will erode our security and put the country back on a path leading to another ill-equipped and ill-prepared military — as in 2001. It was unacceptable then, and it’s unacceptable now.”

Lamenting the post–Cold War peace dividend, England claims that even before 9/11 “the Pentagon was simply running out of money” and that “the Navy did not have enough funding to steam ships or to fly airplanes.” Really? How does that happen? When the military has less money to spend, there are basically four ways they can spend less:

  • It can downsize the force to reduce manpower costs, which make up the bulk of the defense budget. However, since size matters, this is the last thing the military would do. And to be fair, if the military is still being tasked by policymakers to do everything it was doing before (and it always is), it would be pretty much impossible to reduce its size and footprint.

  • It can stop buying new — and always ubër expensive — weapon systems. But this is an anathema on par with reducing the size of the force. It’s also virtually impossible to do, since every major weapon systems contractor has learned to spread the work across as many different states and congressional districts as possible so that there’s a strong constituency to keep funding weapon systems (even if they’re not needed) based on the threat of losing jobs.

  • It can stop funding research and development (R&D), but this is the requisite precursor to being able to buy new weapon systems, so it’s not a favorite candidate. Moreover, R&D is only about 10-15% of the total defense budget (more than $675 billion in fiscal year 2013), so it’s not an area where the largest savings can be realized.

  • Finally, it can underfund readiness (essentially, the operations and maintenance costs) and hollow out the force. Typically, this is what happens whenever the Pentagon is asked to tighten its belt as a result of reduced budgets. And it conveniently allows advocates of ever-increasing defense spending to pull at Americans’ heartstrings using the “support the troops” mantra to make the argument that reduced defense spending is coming at the expense of our troops who are in harm’s way protecting our freedoms.

But woe is a military that is requesting a paltry $525 billion for fiscal year 2013, which England points out is only a $102 billion increase in real dollars compared to the 2001 defense budget of $310 billion ($423 billion when adjusted for today’s dollars). And what’s driving the need for increased spending? According to England, “military salaries and benefits have increased almost 90% during this interval — roughly 30% more than inflation — and now consume a third of the budget.” Those aren’t typos. Military salaries and benefits have increased almost 90% — that is, nearly doubled! By comparison, the national average wage index rose from $32,921 in 2001 to $41,673 in 2010 (the index for 2011 is not yet calculated), or 26.5 percent. I wonder how average American workers feel about that (assuming they still have jobs)?

And it’s not as if the military is grossly underpaid compared to civilians. In addition to base pay, members of the armed forces are eligible for a basic allowance for housing (BAH) that is not subject to income taxes. (BAH is determined by location, rank, and whether or not a member has dependents, but for Texas — considered a low cost-of-living state — the allowance for officers ranges from about $1,200 per month to over $2,300 per month.) They are also eligible for a basic allowance for subsistence (BAS) that is also tax-free (in 2011, $223 per month for officers and $325 for enlisted personnel). I doubt that most workers receive similar benefits from their employers. (If these benefits were provided to the “poor,” many conservatives would deride them as “welfare.” Also, the military Tricare program is a government-run program that would be criticized as “socialized medicine” if it were for the general public.)

So why do we need a large military that costs so much? England contends that “in contrast to the post-Cold War period, when our principal adversary had collapsed, there are many threats to U.S. security today. The nation is still in a shooting war in Afghanistan and will be through at least 2013. Iran and North Korea are obvious concerns. There is tension throughout the Middle East. Out in the Pacific we keep a close eye on China.”

But with bin Laden dead, Afghanistan is no longer a direct security threat to America and, instead, is now another quixotic quest in nation-building. England doesn’t mention Iraq (a war started on his watch in the Bush administration), but that country was never a threat. Iran and North Korea may be “concerns,” but they are not direct military threats to the United States. The reality is that the United States is in a relatively safe geostrategic position in the world. We have friendly governments to the north and south and vast oceans to the east and west. No country in the world has sufficient conventional military force-projection capability to attack America. North Korea has nuclear weapons but no long-range capability to reach the United States. Even if it did, the vast U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal is a powerful deterrent — ditto if Iran ever acquires nuclear weapons. In fact, the only country in the world that poses an existential threat to America is Russia, which still possesses a strategic nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the United States (and vice-versa). Yes, China bears watching (and we shouldn’t be surprised if China reacts to our policy to “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific Region” as a threat and takes actions that, in turn, we construe as a threat), but we still spend as much as 10 times more on the military than the Chinese. Even if they are trying to catch up, they have a huge gap to close.

But none of these are dire threats that warrant a mega military and the mega spending required to support it. Moreover, the American taxpayer doesn’t need to bear the burden of spending nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined when we have rich allies capable of paying for their own security needs.

Gordon England would have us believe that the sky is falling. But one of the morals of the tale of Chicken Little is not to believe everything you are told — especially in this case, since the proposed cuts don’t mean reducing the current defense budget. I’ll agree with England that “the nation’s economic problems can’t be solved on the backs of the military,” but another moral (depending on the version of the tale and its ending) is to have courage. In this case, we need the courage to be serious about reducing defense spending as part of reducing total government spending.

Read more by Charles V. Peña