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.

It's also fair to ask whether we need as many troops. How likely is it that we're going to fight a large land war, or engage in a major naval battle, or fight air duels over contested territory, anytime soon?

Obviously, the future is uncertain, but it's not imponderable. Budgets, by nature, are in part about managing risk. Defense budgets require a different calculus of risk; the consequences of disaster can be catastrophic for the entire nation, so it's worth paying more to avert disasters, even those that have a very small chance of occurring. But how much more is it worth paying? How far down the list of extremely unlikely catastrophes do we want to keep covering? And what exactly does it take to cover those contingencies anyway?

 "To infinity" is not the answer to any of these questions. But it's been a half-century since anyone asked them in a broad, systematic way. (In the last two years, Robert Gates asked some of them, and acted on the answers, in terms of several specific weapons systems, most notably the Air Force's F-22 fighter and the Army's high-tech Future Combat Systems vehicle. But, for a variety of reasons (some political, some temperamental, and some simply because a defense secretary can have only so much tsuris on his plate), he stopped short of applying the standards to larger issues of roles, missions, or the overall size and structure of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

Gates' replacement, Leon Panetta, may wind up staring at a plate overflowing with slop, much of it indigestible, but there's no choice but to gulp and dig in. Panetta said, in a letter to the troops and his staff on Wednesday, that "across-the-board defense cuts"—which would be mandated if Congress fails to agree on a second round of debt-ceiling limits later this year—"would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation." (Italics added.)

If that's true, he and his staff should start coming up with targeted cuts. Some questions they might ask: Does the Army really need 570,000 active-duty soldiers? Does the Air Force really need more F-35 Stealth aircraft (funded at $11 billion, for 43 more planes, next year alone)? Does the Navy really need $4 billion for two more Virginia-class submarines, or $1 billion for a down payment on a new aircraft carrier? And, really, do we need to buy new nuclear weapons, or "improve" the existing ones, at a cost of $100 billion over the next 10 years? (President Obama signed on to this sum, in part, as a deal to get the Senate to ratify the New START treaty with the Russians, but c'mon. The treaty allows the United States and Russia to retain 1,550 long-range nuclear warheads. Who cares to make the case that letting the arsenal rot to 500, or 200, would endanger national security?)

The fact is, not all social programs really help people in need—and not all defense programs really help the national defense. Many of them stem from institutional imperatives (for example, the fact that, until recently, the Air Force was run by fighter pilots), contractor games-playing (for example, the tendency for weapons manufacturers to spread subcontracts to as many congressional districts as possible, the better to build constituencies), and bureaucratic politics (the mutual back-scratching game, which has been going on since the mid-'60s, of divvying up the defense budget among the Army, Navy, and Air Force, in almost precisely even proportions).

Probably not much can be done to alter these basic facts without throwing the entire Pentagon, Congress, and defense-contracting world into utter chaos—and thus causing way more trouble than it's worth. (Disrupting the even divvying of the defense budget, for example, would almost certainly reignite the interservice wars—and they were wars in every sense but the shooting—that dominated military politics throughout the 1950s.)

But if these realities can't be changed, they should at least be recognized—in order to grasp the underlying fact that the Defense Department is as much a bureaucracy as any other federal agency, and thus to demystify the incantation that Program X, Y, or Z, or Mission Q, R, or T, can't be slashed or killed without doing grievous harm to "national security." Maybe the claim is true; but it's time to start setting priorities and asking for proof.

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