Fred Thompson and the Kitchen Sink

Based on a speech given at The Citadel, we now know that Fred Thompson believes we need to spend the equivalent of 4.5 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP) on the military (exclusive of ongoing military operations) and expand the size of our armed forces to one million men and women in uniform. According to Thompson, "Some would say this plan is too much and too big … But these views are out of step with reality … We can and must do this."

The reality is that it is Thompson who is out of step with reality. The "percent of GDP" argument for defense spending is specious at best (Thompson’s proposal would equal $630 billion dollars for defense spending – about $150 billion more than the FY 2008 defense budget based on the 2007 forecast of $14 trillion for the U.S. economy). It is the equivalent of saying that a family should spend a certain percentage of its income on food. But how much food a family needs is not a function of its income. For starters, the size of the family matters. A family with only one child will likely need to spend less than a family with three or four children. And a large family with a small income will likely need to spend a larger percentage of income on food than a small family with a large income.

Would Fred Thompson still believe that 4.5 percent of GDP for defense is enough if the U.S. economy was only one-tenth its current size? What if the U.S. economy doubled in size? Would we really need to double defense expenditures? [And to put some perspective on U.S. defense spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2006 U.S. defense expenditures were $528 billion compared to $630 billion for the rest of the world combined (both in constant 2005 dollars) – or put another way, U.S. spending was about 45 percent of total world defense spending.]

Like food for a family, defense spending is not a function of GDP. How much the United States needs to spend on national security is, first and foremost, a function of threats to national security. During the Cold War, we faced a real military threat in the form of the former Soviet Union. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States is unrivalled and unchallenged as a military power. China is a potential rising power on the strategic horizon, but not a military superpower competitor. And it is unfathomable how so-called rogue states – such as North Korea and Iran (and Iraq before them) – are often equated with Adolf Hitler’s Germany and seen as existential threats to America. Yet these countries possess, at best, second rate militaries and have no capability to directly threaten the U.S. homeland (the fact that U.S. military forces were able to defeat Saddam Hussein’s military in less than four weeks is evidence that these countries pose little conventional military threat to the United States). And even if a country like Iran managed to acquire a few nuclear weapons and the long-range means to deliver them over intercontinental distances, the vastly superior U.S. nuclear arsenal would still be a powerful deterrent.

The truth is that the United States is a rich country faced with very few direct military threats so it should come as no surprise that it does not need to spend a large percentage of its GDP on defense (currently just over 4 percent including military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan). Moreover, the most pressing threat is that posed by terrorism and the reality is that large-scale, conventional military operations are not the most appropriate means for confronting that threat (the more appropriate role for the military will primarily be discrete special forces operations against specific targets when there is reliable, actionable intelligence).

And then there is the matter of Thompson’s proposal for a million person ground force (775,000 in the Army and 225,000 Marines – compared to currently about 519,000 and 184,000, respectively). The Army and Marine Corps met their recruiting goals for first month of fiscal year 2008 (and the military met its targets for fiscal year 2007). But the concern is that recruiting standards have been lowered in order to meet the goals. For example, the Army has accepted a greater numbers of recruits who do not have high school diplomas, have not scored well on Army aptitude tests, or have even been convicted of minor crimes, including drug use – in many ways compromising the standards that the Army has spent years building up. Given the challenges the military faces with the Bush administration’s plan to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 troops in five years, how does Thompson expect to be able to increase the size of U.S. ground forces by three times that to get to one million soldiers and still maintain an all-volunteer force? (If Thompson is serious about spending $630 billion for defense, a large chunk of that would probably have to be in hefty recruiting bonuses.)

In the final analysis, like many liberals’ approach to spending on social programs, Thompson believes nothing less than the kitchen sink will do and has adopted the Nike approach to defense spending: just throw money at it.

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.