Debt-ceiling deal: Do military budget cuts threaten our security?

Military analysis.
Aug. 3 2011 4:19 PM

Would Cutting the Military Budget Threaten Our Security?

It depends how we define our priorities.

Leon Panetta. Click image to expand.
Leon Panetta

Here are some numbers to help you decide whether it really would be dangerous to take another slash at the military budget, as the debt-ceiling deal (and other fiscal politics) might soon require.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and a senior Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. His latest book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, is in paperback. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.

In 1985, at the height of President Ronald Reagan's Cold War arms build-up, the Pentagon budget (adjusted for inflation, to make it comparable in today's dollars) amounted to $574 billion.

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Today, the Pentagon budget on the table for next yearnot including the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—amounts to $553 billion, shy by just over 3 percent. (Including the costs of those wars shoots the figure up to $671 billion, or 17 percent higher than the Cold War peak, i.e., 17 percent more money than the largest sum the United States ever spent in one year on the military since the Korean War.)

Leave aside the particular details of those budgets. (We'll get to them in a moment.) The big question is this: In an era when we face no foes of remotely comparable military power, how could it be that we need to spend as much money as we spent when the Soviet Union was still alive, the Cold War was heating up, the border between Eastern and Western Europe was an armed garrison, and the nuclear arms race was spiraling upward?

Yes, we still face foes, but they don't confront us with waves of tank divisions, armadas of fighter-bombers, or giant aircraft carriers fronting vast blue-water navies—nor do the threats they pose require the deployment of such things (at least not to the extent that the old threats did).

In fact, some of the weapons tailored to the new threats are cheaper than in the old days. For instance, the laser-guided "smart bombs" used in the 1991 Gulf War cost $250,000 each—whereas the GPS-guided smarter bombs used today in Afghanistan cost $20,000 apiece, less than one-tenth the price.

And yes, the troops are paid more now than they were in Reagan's days—as they should be, given that many of them have gone through multiple combat tours and some have sustained serious (and expensive-to-treat) injuries. But as a percentage of the overall military budget, personnel costs are almost exactly the same—23 percent in the mid-'80s, 26 percent today. If you include the cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the percentages are exactly the same: 23 percent. (This is true, in large part, because today's military has considerably fewer active-duty troops.)

More than that, as the wars (or at least our direct involvement in them) wind down, personnel costs are likely to decline on their own. It's a fair question, at that point, whether the troops who are not facing combat duty still need to receive the bonuses and pay hikes that have become routine in the last decade, especially in a stagnant economy that offers fewer job alternatives to young men and women considering a stint in the armed forces.