How to trim the fat from Bush's defense budget.

How to trim the fat from Bush's defense budget.

How to trim the fat from Bush's defense budget.

Military analysis.
Sept. 12 2003 7:18 PM

The Military's Bloated Budget

It hasn't been this big in 50 years. Here's how to trim the fat.

Too many calories for the Defense Department's diet
Too many calories for the Defense Department's diet

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.

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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.

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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).

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Helicopters. The only American weapon that performed poorly in Gulf War II was the AH-64D Apache attack helicopter—in its only massed assault, 30 out of 32 were shot up, mainly by Iraqi small-arms fire, and had to scurry back to base, most of them in disrepair. Yet the budget includes $777 million to keep buying Apaches. It also includes $1.1 billion for initial procurement of the RAH-66 Commanche scout-and-reconnaissance helicopter. Given that unmanned drones, like the Predator and Global Hawk, are cheaper, more effective, and less dangerous, maybe the Commanche can be shut down for a bit, too.

Nuclear weapons. For the past decade, the Pentagon has been denuclearizing its atomic arsenal. B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers have been converted to carry conventional bombs and missiles. Four of the Navy's 18 * Trident submarines are being similarly altered to fire non-nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles. So why does this budget include $780 million to buy 12 more D-5 Trident II nuclear missiles for the other Trident subs? The Navy already has 300 D-5 missiles, each of which carries eight nuclear warheads, for a total of 2,400 warheads. The U.S. military, all told, still possesses about 7,500 strategic nuclear warheads and bombs, of various types, on subs, bombers, and ICBMs. The D-5s were built to give the Navy's submarines the same sort of "hard-target-kill capability"—the combination of explosive power and accuracy necessary to destroy blast-hardened missile silos—that the Air Force's MX missiles had. Since the Soviet Union no longer exists and its Russian successor has destroyed most of its missile silos voluntarily, there is no conceivable justification to purchase more D-5s.

Missile defense. This column has recited, with exhausting repetition (see, most recently, here), the many ways in which President Bush's much-cherished missile-defense program is not nearly ready for prime time—even by the Pentagon's own (if sometimes understated) acknowledgement. Yet the president persists in his plans to deploy the beginnings of an anti-missile missile system before the end of the year and to continue to accelerate more advanced aspects of the program, even though all analyses indicate that the technology does not exist to support them. The budget for this year contains $9.1 billion for missile defense. It would not harm security in the slightest to cut this by two-thirds to $3 billion—which is how much Ronald Reagan spent in his spurt of enthusiasm for "star wars," and which is more than enough to maintain what defense denizens like to call a "robust research-and-development effort."

This batch of suggestions alone would save nearly $20 billion, and we haven't even mentioned excesses in surface ships (to fend off whose navies?), anti-submarine-warfare programs (to attack whose submarines?), vertical-take-off-and-landing aircraft (which don't seem to perform reliably at taking off or landing)—to say nothing of associated costs in maintenance and R & D, or of potential savings in other, less visible, but cumulatively overstuffed accounts.

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Legislators often fall into the trap of believing that everything in the military budget must have a military need. Their eyes glaze over in a haze of credulity, or their backs stiffen in a respectful salute, that isn't remotely replicated when they scrutinize the budget of most other departments of the federal government. Amid this permissive climate, the Pentagon has, quite naturally, inflated its perceived threats, swelled its stated requirements, and loosened its fiscal discipline. Donald Rumsfeld insists that Iraq is not Vietnam. But his budget says otherwise.

Correction, Sept. 15, 2003: This article originally reported that 50,000 Americans died in the Korean War. While that figure was accepted for many years, in 2000 the U.S. government revised it to roughly 37,000. ( Return to corrected sentence.)

Correction, Sept. 15, 2003: This article originally reported that the Navy has 11 Trident submarines; the actual figure is 18. ( Return to corrected sentence.)

Correction, Sept. 16, 2003:This article originally said the Air Force has more than 100 stealth aircraft; the correct number is 75. (Return to the corrected sentence.)