Tag Archives: defense spending

Evaluating the Impact of Defense Spending

The Pentagon is again being criticized for wasteful spending. There’s some irony in this accusation, as battles between Congress and the Pentagon have frequently resulted in billions of dollars in spending on defense programs supported by Congress but opposed by the Pentagon. But a story in the LA Times this week, the Pentagon has spent more than $10 billion to develop a missile defense system capable of defending the United States from ballistic missile attack. Despite massive spending, no viable system has yet been developed. The Pentagon maintains that the task given the group is enormous—akin to shooting a bullet with another bullet—and that the spending so far provided valuable research advances that will someday lead to a viable system.

At the same time, critics of the missile defense program—and of much of the Congressional authorizations for Pentagon research—focus too heavily on outdated threats. They argue that the most significant threats to national security come from individual terrorist cells sneaking weapons into the United States or threatening our allies, not from more traditional nuclear or conventional threats from countries like Russia or North Korea. Consequently, spending they argue should shift to reflect the new global reality.

What do you think? In an era of declining defense spending, does research on missile defense systems make sense? How should the United States prioritize its defense spending? And what threats do you think the United States needs to address most immediately?

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Climate Change, National Security, and Domestic Politics

Of all agencies of the US government, perhaps the US military has exhibited the highest level of concern over the potential impact of climate change on its operations. The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), issued by the Pentagon in March, described climate change as a “threat multiplier” that will alter global defense priorities and policies into the future. Climate change, the report warned, will force the Pentagon to rethink both its mission and its operations, as problems like delivering humanitarian aid will be exacerbated by climate change.

But yesterday House Republicans approved an amendment to a National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit the Pentagon from using resources to assess the impact of climate change.

Representatives Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) decried the amendment, describing the vote as “science denial at its worst [that] fails our moral obligation to our children and grandchildren.”

Why the Gates Military Reforms are Necessary…And Why They Probably Won’t Happen

F-22 Raptor

The F-22 Raptor

Military budgets in the United States have long been sacrosanct. Even while funding for social programs is cut, military spending has generally been safe. There are lots of reasons for this. Republicans generally favor higher military spending, so are loathe to cut defense spending. Democrats are perpetually fearful that Republicans will paint them as soft on defense, so they similarly don’t generally want to cut military spending. On top of that, defense programs Consequently, defense spending has historically been a bipartisan issue, one of the few areas where Congressional Republicans and Democrats agree. Indeed, they agree so much, that they often overspend. The 2010 defense budget, for example, was $680 billion (not including “emergency” allocations for ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The $680 billion base budget was $16 billion more than the Defense Department requested… In other words, the Department of Defense—the military itself—said we need $664 billion to do our job (and anyone who’s ever studied the politics of the budget…or made a budget themselves…knows that this figure likely included padding to ensure the real amount they needed would be allocated even if trimmed a bit) and Congress said, no, we think you need more…how about $680 billion instead? The net effect of this trend is a huge defense budget. In 2009, the United States accounted for 46.5 percent of all military spending worldwide. In other words, the United States spends about as much on its defense as all other countries in the world combined. It spends six times as much on its national defense as the second-ranked country (China, which spends approximately $100 billion per year on national defense). Unfortunately much of this spending is directed towards threats from the Soviet Union. Ballistic missile defense programs, stealth fighter programs, and the like are all intended to address a threat which no longer exists. Bill Gates’ proposed changes to the Pentagon’s budget are intended not to cut defense spending but to shift priorities. These reforms include cutting the number of flag officers (generals and admirals), reducing the number of civilian contractors, and asking the armed services to look for internal savings which they will be able to keep and reinvest in other priorities. Gates hopes, for example, to allocate spending away from the F-22 Raptor program, which the Pentagon has long asked to eliminate, and shift it towards drone procurement. But Gates faces an uphill battle. Despite calls from the Pentagon to cut the F-22 program, Congress has insisted on increased procurements and expanded funding for the program. Does Congress fear a Soviet invasion? Is Red October just around the corner? No. While members of Congress couch their allocations to the F-22 program in terms of national defense, the real issue is likely pork-barrel politics. Components of the F-22 are produced in 44 states, providing high paying jobs in Congressional districts across the country. Other big-ticket defense projects have been difficult to kill for similar reasons. So while Gates may make some progress in restructuring defense spending, it’s unlikely that real shifts in defense spending intended to address the needs of the twenty-first century will take place. In critiquing the F-22 program, Gates noted that the fighter had not been used in a single operation in Iraq or Afghanistan. Indeed, the fighter jet had yet to see combat operations anywhere. Why let that get in the way? In 2004, then Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, responding to criticism from soldiers in Iraq complaining about poor or missing combat equipment famously responded, “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” But as long as the politics of defense spending continue to be guided as they have, we will never have the army we want. The defense challenges faced by the United States in the twenty-first century do not require expensive fighter jets designed to fight the Soviet Union. It requires more flexible forces working in conjunction with humanitarian, educational, and diplomatic initiatives.

Gates’ New Pentagon Budget

The Obama administration’s Pentagon budget proposal gives some indication about the thinking of the new administration on the role and status of U.S. forces abroad. Most telling is the decision to phase out production of the F22 Raptor and other high profile, high-tech weapons systems. According to Gates, these systems are not suited for the new missions of the U.S. military, which have tended to focus on counter-insurgency operations and nation building. Blogging at Small Wars Journal, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling argues that, “Unlike previous eras of great power politics, the United States now has more to fear from weak states than strong ones.” (His entire talk is brief and makes a compelling case.)

The single-largest obstacle to reforming the military to enable it to address contemporary challenges comes, according to Yingling, not primarily from the military but from the bureaucracy. The F22 Raptor, for example, costs about $360 million per copy. Parts for the aircraft are produced in 44 states, making it a Congressional boondoggle. Members of Congress who have production facilities in their home states are unlikely to oppose the project, no matter how ill-suited the plane may be to current operational needs. As a result, the military gets what Congress wants it to have.

The details of Obama’s plans have not been made public yet, and the quadrennial forces review is not scheduled to be undertaken until next year. Nevertheless it seems clear that we must avoid the temptation to fight the last war. The Cold War is over, and massive state-on-state conflict seems increasingly unlikely. Future threats are far more likely to come from non-state actors, like al Qaeda, or (increasingly) from threats like global climate change or state collapse. And no matter how technologically advanced an F22 is, it’s unlikely to help address those challenges.