Pentagon Gluttons

The proposed fiscal year 2010 budget for the Department of Defense is $534 billion, which is $21 billion more than this fiscal year. Predictably, many conservatives are arguing that this is too paltry a sum. For example, the Heritage Foundation’s Mackenzie Eaglen laments that "the defense budget for 2010 and beyond will remain inadequate." But how is $534 billion inadequate?

To begin, it’s important to understand that although the Department of Defense budget might be $534 billion, we actually spend far more on so-called defense. Indeed, Winslow Wheeler – the first, last, and only Senate staffer to work simultaneously on the personal staffs of a Republican (Nancy Kassebaum) and a Democrat (David Pryor) – calls the $534 billion figure a bunch of baloney. According to Wheeler’s itemization, the grand total amounts to $969 billion:

  • Department of Defense budget: $534 billion
  • Additional funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan: $130 billion
  • Money sought by the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons and other appropriations, such as for the Selective Service and the National Defense Stockpile: $22 billion
  • Department of Veterans Affairs budget to pay for the human costs of previous and current wars: $106 billion
  • Department of Homeland Security: $43 billion
  • Military and economic aid to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and others, as well as United Nations peacekeeping costs: $49 billion
  • Department of Treasury spending to help pay for military retirement: $28 billion
  • The Defense Department’s share of interest on the national debt: $57 billion

And consider that according to the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, in 2009 U.S. defense spending ($541 billion for the Pentagon and nuclear weapons-related activities for the Department of Energy plus $170 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan) amounted to:

  • 48 percent of the world’s total military spending (or put another way, the United States spent nearly what the rest of the world combined spent)
  • 5.8 times more than China (often cited as a looming threat but more of a rising regional power than a superpower challenger), 10.2 times more than Russia (let’s review… the Soviet Union no longer exists and the Cold War is over), 98.6 times more than Iran (axis of evil… enough said), and 273.5 times more than Venezuela (a favorite Western Hemisphere bogeyman for conservatives, since Hugo Chavez is a socialist, but according to STRATFOR’s Fred Burton, "there is no sincere argument to be made by national security conservatives in the United States that Chavez himself poses a threat to the United States by knowingly aiding and abetting jihadists").

One of the reasons Eaglen doesn’t believe $534 billion is enough is that "America has traditionally spent more than 4 percent of the national economy, or gross domestic product, on defense." So what? There is nothing magical about 4 percent of GDP. It’s nothing more than a way to measure defense spending relative to the size of the economy and to make a judgment about whether the economy can bear the burden. But it’s not a way to determine how much to spend on defense. Defense spending is a function of threats and the military capabilities needed to deter or defeat those threats. And the reality is that military threats to the United States are relatively minimal. Only two countries possess long-range strategic missiles capable of targeting America – Russia and China – but the U.S. nuclear arsenal acts as a strong deterrent against them. Furthermore, no country has the conventional power-projection capabilities to invade the United States. Moreover, the U.S. military is the largest and is equipped with the most advanced weaponry in the world.

And it’s hard to take Eaglen’s "America has traditionally spent more than 4 percent of the national economy, or gross domestic product, on defense" argument seriously when she says, "They [defense spending increases] should be tied to fiscal policies that insist on restraining the projected growth in overall federal spending. Reductions in spending growth should be made first in non-essential programs and then among the programs that are responsible for driving the budget higher every year." But if 4 percent of GDP is a good enough way to determine defense spending, then why not use similar logic for the rest of the federal budget? After all, America has traditionally spent about 20 percent of the national economy on the federal government for the last half century or so.

Moreover, Eaglen assumes that all defense spending is essential. Does she or anyone else seriously believe that every penny of $534 billion is absolutely needed for the security of the United States? That there isn’t a single defense program we could live without? That there isn’t any money wasted by the Pentagon?

Eaglen cites the need for military modernization as the raison d’etre for increasing the defense budget: "During the 1990s procurement holiday, Republicans acquiesced to President Clinton’s defense budget cuts, and together the two sides allowed the military to significantly decline." This is the same military that was able to launch Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan to depose the Taliban (though it missed the mark in getting Osama bin Laden) only a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is the same military that was able to defeat Saddam’s army and take Baghdad in less than a month. So it’s hard to see how the U.S. military is ill-equipped to do battle with traditional military threats. What the U.S. military lacks are the tools and training for counterinsurgency warfare (which is not the same thing as saying that the United States should be waging counterinsurgency wars around the world), but modernizing major weapons systems is not the way to fill that void.

The reality is that the United States does not have to spend more – and, in fact, could spend considerably less – to be secure against the few military threats we might have to face. And the result of continued record defense spending is maintaining and deploying the large military footprint around the world afforded by such spending – which actually makes us less, not more, secure. 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 rising anti-American sentiment and the terrorist threat to the United States.

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.