Nuclear Weapons

The Good Old Days: The military budget is out of control

04.23.08 | 8 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

The military budget is out of control. Not in the sense of the mantra of “waste, fraud, and abuse.” That is, in fact, a tiny slice of the enormous U.S. military spending. No, the budget is out of control in the sense that spending on the military is no longer subject to meaningful political review. The Pentagon has slipped its leash and Congress is not asking questions.

Congress is currently considering President Bush’s proposed budget, which included $515 billion for the military and separate requests for tens of billions more for intelligence and nuclear weapons and, on top of that, separate requests of over a hundred billion can be expected to cover the operating costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is more than we spent on the military during the height of the Cold War, even accounting for inflation. The president is constantly reminding us of how dangerous the world is and, of course, the threats to American security are all too real. But using the threats faced by the US today to justify Cold War-level budgets is possible only if we have near total amnesia about what the threat during the Cold War really was.

Imagine making a movie of the US security environment since the end of the Cold War. By now, the movie is twenty years long and it ends with today’s military threats and today’s military budgets. Now imagine running the film backwards. What trends in the US security situation are revealed as the movie goes back in time?

As the movie opens, the US faces continuing military conflict in the Middle East and potential trouble on the Korean Peninsula. As we play the film back, we see a few favorable trends. The nuclear threat from North Korea and Iran becomes less immediate even though their conventional capability probably is slowly increasing. The threat of a massive terrorist attack on the US homeland goes from being all too real to becoming a potential, latent threat.

All of the changes in these smaller countries are, however, dwarfed by one overwhelming development in our time-reversed film, namely what is happening in Russia. As the film begins, Russia is a prickly nation, clearly not an ally but certainly not an enemy. But, to be blunt, whether Russia is friend or foe is not terribly important to US conventional security calculations because Russia’s conventional military capability is so limited that it is virtually irrelevant. What happens as the film plays back in time is staggering. After several years of muddling through with an inefficient somewhat corrupt economy, everything seems to happen at once. Russia is gripped by a Communist ideology that at first is rather benign but rapidly grows more threatening until finally the Communist Party believes it has a destiny of world domination.

The Party engineers a coup, overthrowing the government of Russia and then proceeds to subvert its neighbors, quickly subsuming them into a Russian empire it calls the Soviet Union. As bad as this is, it gets much worse as the film continues backward in time toward the late 1980s. The Soviet Union creates and supports Communist Parties in Eastern Europe, even within our NATO allies, and one after another, these democratic governments are overthrown, withdraw from NATO, and join a hostile alliance, the Warsaw Pact. The most crushing defeat of all comes when the center of NATO, Germany, with the largest economy in Europe, suffers a bloodless civil war and the eastern quarter of the country succeeds, sets up a Communist dictatorship, and then invites in a vast Soviet army. Fifty armored divisions are now poised in the heart of Europe, facing the remainder of what used to be the pan-European NATO alliance. Hundreds of thousands of US troops are rushed to the truncated Germany to shore up the defense of Western Europe. The fate of the world is in question.

Now that the tape has played back to its beginning, that is, to the last days of the Cold War, what is the overall response of the US? Specifically, can we picture the President of the United States going to Congress, reviewing these events, and then stating confidently, “The military doesn’t need any more money. What we had before to deal with middling powers like Iran and North Korea is perfectly adequate to deal with this new Soviet threat in Europe.” Does this sound even remotely plausible? Yet this is exactly the essence of the argument that is presented when the film is played forward, that resources needed twenty years after the Cold War are the same as those needed during the Cold War. How can this possibly be?

Most calls for reexamination of the military budget include lists of expensive Cold War weapons that should be cancelled. This exercise is beside the point. The United States has given up any pretense of scaling its military proportionate to the threat posed by potential enemies, moving from “threat-based” planning to explicitly “capabilities-based” planning. This means, independent of who our friends are and who our enemies are and what their military capabilities are, military planners set some goal that must be met. This has the bizarre consequence that if real and potential enemies, say Iran, North Korea, even China, were taken over tomorrow by Quakers, military “requirements” would not change and the budget would not go down by a nickel.

Lacking any benchmark from which to measure, it is extremely difficult, and inherently arbitrary, to set a goal for US military capability. But, once the goal is set, “requirements” escape logic. Without the grounding of something concrete to measure against, we cannot set rational priorities, for example, decide on one weapon versus another. Even though Russian and Chinese submarines rarely put out to sea, the Navy continues to buy large, fast Virginia-class submarines at two billion dollars apiece. In the end, we are competing with ourselves.

Secretary of Defense Gates and others become genuinely otherworldly when they tie our military capability to the size of the national economy. Gates has called for the country to commit to spending 4% of GDP on the military. So, if the economy grows, the military grows, regardless of what is going on in the rest of the world. This sort of logic would suggest that the country should have spent more in the 1920s, when the world looked pretty benign but the economy was soaring, than in the 1930s, when prospects of war grew ever more frightening but the economy had tanked.

This may seem a bad time to criticize the military budget; the country is, after all, in not one but two wars. Yet the Iraq and Afghan wars provide a sobering yardstick of comparison. The administration is not being honest about the true costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars and most likely, no one will ever know how much the wars actually cost. The budget came along with a separate request for execution of the wars, but only for part of fiscal year 2009. When the supplementals are added up, they will probably fall in the range of $150-200 billion for the year. This is a lot of money—and can’t include the lives lost and shattered—but the most astonishing thing about this number is that it is about one third of the “peacetime” budget request. One way to put the budget request into perspective is to figure that the military’s day-to-day peacetime operations are equivalent to fighting three Iraq and three Afghan wars all the time, forever, against no one. What is the country doing with all that military muscle?

The United States military now spends as much as the rest of the world’s militaries combined. And most of the next dozen or so big spenders—and the second place, China, is a distant second place—are not our enemies but our friends and allies, including Britain, Germany, Japan, France, and South Korea. Pentagon planners consider this such a natural state of affairs that it does not occur to them to bother to explain why it should be so.

Members of Congress, Democrats probably more than Republicans, want to be seen as supporting the military and the nation’s security and strength. Yet, without a threat to tie our military capabilities to, not only are we unable to realistically calculate what forces and weapons we need, we also have no useful measures of military capability. So we need a surrogate measure and that surrogate is money. When all the dust has settled, it really makes little difference to the president or to Congress where the money goes—at least the part that doesn’t go to a Congressman’s own district. What matters is what the top line is, how big an increase over last year, how large a dollar figure compared to that proposed by the opposition. Money is the measure of seriousness about security, a vast security potlatch.

Overspending on the military is more than a waste of resources; it can hurt the nation’s security in the long term. Whenever a society starts to unthinkingly accept its own euphemisms, there is danger of being derailed. The military budget is inevitably called the “defense” budget, blurring the fact that our defense depends on much more than what the Pentagon can deliver. Americans have wildly inflated estimates of what the country spends on foreign assistance and polls show that Americans understand that building a girls’ school in Pakistan may be as important to our security as buying another fighter plane. But debate about the “defense” budget obscures those choices. With the military gorged with resources, we turn first to our military for solutions. Our security and foreign policy become militarized. We turn to the military to fight terrorism, which, in the great majority of cases, would be better left to good intelligence and police work. The nation would have a more honest debate about priorities if we went back to 1948 and again started calling the Department of Defense the Department of War. Then everyone would be clear what we were paying for.

Once money becomes the measure of the military and the military is equated with defense, no one can question the budget without being accused of being weak on defense. Republicans delight in holding the high ground and Democrats feel constantly vulnerable. So the largest military budgets since the Second World War will probably be passed with a minimum of Congressional hearings and no discussion of strategy, grand or otherwise. The Pentagon’s budget has, quite literally, got out of control. Change is unlikely soon, but eventually the nation needs to debate what we what our military to do, what the real dangers are, and how the challenges to our security should be met.