The President has submitted a military budget of $440 billion dollars, with request for more than an additional hundred billion for the Iraq war expected later. It is finally time to say that the Pentagon budget has slipped its leash and is out of control. Not in the sense that the country is splashing money around without accounting for it but that the military budget process has escaped from meaningful political review and oversight. The Republicans know their biggest appeal to the American voters is as guarantors of their security, which they interpret as giving the Pentagon whatever it asks for, even as deficits climb. The Democrats are terrified of being seen as soft on defense so they don’t even dare ask questions. In this climate of fear we operate more on momentum than careful analysis and Congress can’t say “No” to the Pentagon on anything.
It is hard to make sense of the spending. We already spend more than the average peacetime levels of the Cold War and we are approaching Cold War peaks. Ah, but we are told the world is a very dangerous place today and we are fighting a hot war right now. That is true, but we need some perspective, and that has to come from Congress.
We are fighting a poorly defined, and probably weakly organized, set of groups that clearly wants to do us harm. But compare the military challenge of the Cold War. During the Reagan Administration, the Pentagon published annually a report called “Soviet Military Power.” It was meant to be a sobering read, and it was. The Russians had vast tank armies west of Berlin ready to roll to Lisbon and nuclear armed Soviet submarines constantly prowled up and down both coasts.
The threat to the country today is real but the military part of the threat from al Qaeda and the rest of the world is tiny compared to that from the old Soviet Union. If we are spending as much on the military today as we were during the Cold War, then at least one of three things must be true, either we are grossly overspending, or we are applying the wrong tool to the problem, or we are guilty of breathtaking inefficiencies.
What about the all-too-hot war in Iraq? The exact dollar cost of the Iraq war is hard to know, but the Iraq-specific “supplementals” the Administration has submitted to Congress since the war began have been between a quarter and a fifth the size of the rest of the military budget. Turn those numbers around and they imply that the country’s normal, peacetime, day-to-day military operations are financially equivalent to four or five simultaneous Iraq wars.
Several mistakes combine to create this unjustifiable budget.
First, military spending is at Cold War levels because we are still fighting the Cold War. The world has been turned on its head since the end of the Cold War, yet the relative allocation of resources among the three military Services has not changed more than a few percent. This might reflect an astonishing coincidence but it more likely reflects entrenched bureaucratic inertia. We hear the military is stretched thin but don’t be fooled, the Army is stretched thin, not the military. Many of the most expensive weapons in the pipeline were conceived during the Cold War and designed specifically to counter the old Soviet Union and are destined for the Navy and Air Force. There are a dozen examples but the most egregious is without doubt the Virginia-class submarine that, at two billion dollars each, is now being promoted in part as a way to intercept phone calls.
The U.S military budget is roughly the size of every other country’s spending combined and most of the other big spenders—Britain, France, and Japan among them—are our allies, not our enemies. So the Administration has created military requirements that it freely admits are unhinged from any real threats. The Pentagon calls this moving from “threat-based” to “capabilities-based” planning, on the theory that threats in today’s world change too quickly. But capabilities-based planning also means that, if Iran, North Korea, and China were taken over by Quakers tomorrow, our military budget would not go down by a nickel.
This is more than a question of wasting money.
The wrong spending can actually undermine our security. We are confused by our own euphemisms. We call the military budget the “defense” budget. Without question, the military is the cornerstone of our defense and we have learned that we must be ready for war to ensure peace but our defense requires more than military might.
Is our security increased more by buying an additional submarine or spending those billions of dollars on improved port security and building girls’ schools in Pakistan? Congress needs to make decisions about how much it wants to spend on defense and, of that amount, how much should go to the military. The Nation has to stop measuring its security by the size of the Pentagon’s budget.