More Defense Spending,
Less Security

Last week, President Bush proposed a record $439.3 defense budget for fiscal year 2007, almost $30 billion more than the current
budget. And as has been the case since 2003 – when the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq – the fiscal year 2007 defense budget does not include full funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will be requested in an emergency supplemental. Why the Defense Department can’t just budget for ongoing military operations is a mystery – after all the Pentagon is awash in planners and budget analysts. And we’re now almost three years into the Iraq war and subsequent military occupation, so it’s not like the administration doesn’t have a clue as to how much it costs. But here’s a reminder: the fiscal year 2003 supplemental request was $65.9 billion, 2004 was $85 billion, 2005 was $78.8 billion (click here [.pdf]), and the current request is $75 billion [.pdf]. And given the history of supplementals for Iraq and Afghanistan, the current $50 billion estimate for the fiscal year 2007 supplemental is likely low (one estimate for the monthly cost of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq is $5.6 billion, or $67.2 billion per year.

Unsound fiscal practices aside, the real question is whether such large defense spending is necessary for U.S. security (to provide some perspective, current U.S. defense spending is more in real terms than during any of the Reagan years and surpassed only by spending at the end of World War Two in 1945 and 1946 and during the Korean War in 1952). The answer is "no."

The United States is in a unique geostrategic position. We have friendly neighbors to the north and south, and vast moats to the east and west. Given that no other country in the world has significant global power projection capability, America is relatively safe from a military invasion. And the vast U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal is a powerful deterrent against any country with nuclear weapons – even against so-called rogue states if they eventually acquire long-range ballistic missiles.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States no longer faces a serious military challenger or global hegemonic threat. And the U.S. military is, by far and away, the most dominant military force on the planet. Russia comes closest to having the capability to be a military threat to the United States, but instead of being a threat to Europe, it now has observer status with NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and, despite having more main battle tanks than the U.S. Army, is no longer considered a threat to sweep through the Fulda Gap to occupy Western Europe.

Even if Russia were to change course and adopt a more hostile position, it is not in a position to challenge the United States – either economically or militarily. In 2003, Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) was a little more than a tenth of U.S. GDP ($1.3 trillion vs. $10.9 trillion). And although a larger share of Russia’s GDP was for defense expenditures (4.9 percent vs. 3.7 percent), in absolute terms the United States outspent Russia by more than 6-to-1. So Russia would have to devote more than 20 percent of its GDP to defense – which would exceed what the Soviet Union spent during the height of the Cold War during the 1980s – to equal the United States.

Certainly, Chinese military developments bear watching, and although many see China as the next great threat, even if China modernizes and expands its strategic nuclear force (as many military experts predict it will), the United States will retain a credible nuclear deterrent with an overwhelming advantage in warheads, launchers, and variety of delivery vehicles. Moreover, China does not possess the sea- or airlift to be able to project its military power and threaten the U.S. homeland. And like Russia, China may not have the wherewithal to compete with and challenge the United States. In 2003, U.S. GDP was almost eight times more than China’s ($10.9 trillion vs. $1.4 trillion). China spent fractionally more of its GDP on defense than the United States (3.9 percent vs. 3.7 percent), but in absolute terms the U.S. defense expenditures were seven times that of China’s ($404.9 billion vs. $55.9 billion). So China would have to devote one-quarter of its GDP to defense to equal the United States.

If the Russian and Chinese militaries are not serious threats to the United States, so-called rogue states – such as North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Cuba – are even less of a threat. Though these countries are unfriendly to the United States, none have any real military capability to threaten or challenge vital American security interests or the U.S. homeland. In economic terms, the GDP of these four countries was $590.3 billion in 2003 compared to a U.S. GDP of $10.9 trillion, or less than 5.5 percent of U.S. GDP. Military spending is even more lopsided: $11.3 billion compared to $404.9 billion, or less than 3 percent of U.S. defense spending. In fact, U.S. defense spending eclipses that of all other countries. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2003 total United States defense expenditures ($404.9 billion in current year dollars) exceeded the combined defense expenditures of the next 13 countries and was more than double the combined defense spending of the remaining 158 countries in the world.

So the United States can afford to spend less on defense and still be secure. A smaller U.S. military would be highly capable relative to the other militaries of the world. And downsizing the military does not mean that the United States would be retreating into a shell and adopting an isolationist posture. Even if U.S. forces were pulled back from their current forward deployments, the United States would still be able to project power if vital U.S. security interests were at risk. Although it is counterintuitive, forward deployment does not significantly enhance the U.S. military’s ability to fight wars. The comparative advantage that the U.S. military possesses is airpower, which can be dispatched relatively quickly and at very long ranges. Indeed, during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force was able to fly missions from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to Afghanistan and back.

It is also worth noting that both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom were conducted without significant forces already deployed in either theater of operations. In the case of Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. military had neither troops nor bases adjacent to Afghanistan – yet military operations commenced less than a month after the Sept. 11 attacks. In the case of Operation Iraqi Freedom, even though the U.S. military had over 6,000 troops deployed in Saudi Arabia (mostly Air Force), the Saudi government officially denied the use of its bases to conduct military operations from that country. Instead, the United States used Kuwait as the headquarters and the jumping off point for military operations. Similarly, the Turkish government prevented the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division from using bases in that country for military operations in northern Iraq, forcing some 30,000 troops to be transported via ship through the Suez Canal and Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, where they arrived too late to be part of the initial attack against Iraq. Despite these handicaps, U.S. forces swept away the Iraqi military in less than four weeks.

However, the real threat to the United States no longer consists of nation states, but the terrorist threat represented by al-Qaeda, which is relatively undeterred by the U.S. military. Indeed, an expansive defense perimeter and forward deployed forces did not stop 19 hijackers from attacking the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and killing more than 3,000 innocent civilians. And U.S. forces abroad – particularly those deployed in Muslim countries – do more to exacerbate the terrorist threat than diminish it. We know, for example, that the presence of 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War was the basis for Osama bin Laden’s hatred of the United States and one of his consistently stated reasons for engaging in terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks. Even former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz admits that U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia were "a huge recruiting device for al-Qaeda. In fact, if you look at bin Laden, one of his principal grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina." So reducing the U.S. military presence around the world – particularly in the Muslim world – is likely to do more to reduce America’s profile as a target for terrorism.

Moreover, the shorthand phrase "war on terrorism" is misleading. First, as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) points out: "the enemy is not just ‘terrorism,’ some generic evil. This vagueness blurs the strategy. The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism – especially the al-Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology." Second, the term "war" implies the use of military force as the primary instrument of policy for waging the fight against terrorism. But traditional military operations will be the exception rather than the rule in the conflict with al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is not an army that wears uniforms and operates in a specific geographic region. Rather, it is a loosely connected and decentralized network with cells and operatives in 60 countries around the world. So President Bush is right: "We’ll have to hunt them down one at a time."

Although President Bush is also right to be skeptical about treating terrorism "as a crime, a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments," the reality is that the arduous task of dismantling and degrading the network will largely be the task of unprecedented international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation. The military aspects of the war on terrorism will largely be the work of special forces in discrete operations against specific targets rather than large-scale military operations.

Ultimately, larger defense budgets are both unnecessary and unwise because they do not target the al-Qaeda terrorist threat. Most current defense spending is to continue funding a large U.S. military presence deployed to all four corners of the globe (even before Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom) and weapon systems such as the F-22 tactical fighter, F/A-18E/F attack fighter, V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, Virginia class submarines, and DD(X) destroyers (canceling these programs would probably result in saving more than $200 billion in future costs) that are not needed to counter the few military threats the United States might have to face. But having such a large military results in the Madeleine Albright syndrome – "What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?" – which becomes a temptation for policymakers to engage in unnecessary military interventions and deployments, which in turn are a source of the terrorist threat to the United States. So we may be spending more on defense, but we are actually less secure.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.