The Military's Bloated Budget
It hasn't been this big in 50 years. Here's how to trim the fat.
This year, if all goes as President Bush plans, the United States will spend more money on the military than in any year since 1952, the peak of the Korean War.
Here are the stark numbers. The original defense budget for fiscal year 2004 was $400 billion. Bush's supplemental request for Iraq and Afghanistan, which he announced last Sunday on television, is $87 billion, for a total of $487 billion. Let's be conservative and deduct the $21 billion of the supplemental that's earmarked for civil reconstruction (even though the Defense Department is running the reconstruction). That leaves $466 billion.
By comparison, in constant 2004 dollars (adjusted for inflation), the U.S. defense budget in 1985, the peak of the Cold War and Ronald Reagan's rearmament, totaled $453 billion. That was $12 billion to $33 billion less than this year's budget (depending on whether you count reconstruction). In 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, the budget amounted to $428 billion. That's $38 billion to $59 billion below Bush's request for this year.
You have to go back more than 50 years, when 37,000 * Americans were dying in the big muddy of Korea, to find a president spending more money on the military—and even that year's budget, $497 billion in constant dollars, wasn't a lot more than what Bush is asking today.
These are parlous times, but are they that parlous? Do we really need to be spending quite so much money on the military?
The $87 billion supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan is fairly straightforward: $32.3 billion for operations and maintenance, $18.5 billion for personnel, $1.9 billion for equipment, $5 billion for security, $15 billion for infrastructure, and so on. It's a bookkeeping calculation: If you want to continue the mission, that's what it costs; if you want to spend less, you have to downgrade the mission.
But there's plenty more in the military budget that does not have the slightest connection to any clear and present (or even murky and distant) danger.
When Congress passed the military budget last spring, nobody had any idea that "postwar" difficulties would boost it by $87 billion—more than one-fifth of its original, already hefty size. Nor did anyone project that the federal deficit would meanwhile expand to nearly half a trillion dollars. When your kid's in the hospital, your roof is leaking, and your salary's just been cut, you should probably put off plans to build a pool or buy a plasma-screen television. The military budget is in a similar state, and it only makes sense to reopen the books, set priorities, and slash those programs that can safely be deferred.
Here are some particularly large and easy suggestions:
Stealth fighter planes. The budget includes $5.2 billion to build 22 F-22 Raptor stealth fighters and $4.4 billion to continue research and development for a smaller, single-engine version known as the F-35 Joint Strike fighter. Stealth planes are built from exotic materials, with rounded edges, to minimize their visibility to enemy air-defense radars. The U.S. Air Force already has more than 75 * stealth aircraft, in the form of B-2 bombers and F/A-117 attack planes. They have been very useful, in the last few wars, for going in early and knocking out heavily defended targets and air-defense sites. Beyond that phase of the battle, non-stealth planes—F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, A-10s, even ancient B-52s—have done just fine and have been shot down in exceedingly small numbers. In other words, beyond a certain point (which we have probably reached for the foreseeable future), we don't need more stealth. As an additionally superfluous matter, the F-22 and F-35 are designed as stealth "air-superiority" fighters—planes whose main mission is to shoot down enemy planes. Given the comparative resources that the United States and other nations devote to flight training and technology, it is very doubtful that any air force in the world, except perhaps those of Israel and France, could shoot down more than a few American non-stealth fighter planes in even a large, protracted dogfight (and most of those shoot-downs would be by dumb luck).
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of the X-35 Joint Strike Fighter from Agence France-Presse.