Does Paul Ryan Know How to Make a Budget?

Military analysis.
April 5 2012 6:04 PM

Paul Ryan’s Risky Ideas

Does the chairman of the House Budget Committee know anything about how a military budget gets made?

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This is precisely what Ryan has failed to do—though, in fairness, none of his colleagues, in either party, have done much better. They haven’t subjected the defense budget to a systematic analysis of what is necessary and what isn’t; they haven’t even sought to scope out what “necessary” means.

All through the first decade of this century, the Pentagon’s managers failed to do this as well. In the wake of 9/11, they got whatever they wanted, and anyone who resisted was labeled “soft on terrorism,” whether or not the programs they resisted had anything to do with the “war on terror.” What discipline they once had (and it was never stern) went slack amid the free-for-all.

With the appointment of Robert Gates as secretary of defense in 2006, the long knives came out of the drawer, to some extent anyway.

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Take, for instance, Gates’ decision to halt production of the F-22 Raptor at 183 planes instead of proceeding to buy all 387 that the Air Force wanted. One reason he did this was that, according to the Air Force’s own analysis, 387 of the planes would be needed only if the United States were to fight two simultaneous wars against foes of comparable strength (e.g., a revived Russia and an emergent China). Gates made an explicit calculation that this scenario was extremely unlikely and that, therefore, halting the F-22 was a move of very low risk.

It was a risk, though, and he said as much. Every decision carries some risks. One job of a leader is to weigh them.

Gen. Dempsey and the other chiefs who took offense at Ryan’s remark have actually been doing a lot of risk-weighing, as chiefs are often forced to do when wars end and the budget axe begins to chop.

When they testify to Congress, military officers present the case for the budget they’ve submitted. But they also express an appraisal—their “best professional judgment”—of its consequences. They will say that cutting a weapons program, or buying fewer of them than they’d initially advocated, has “low risk” or “medium risk” or “high risk.” Their assessments are worth noting, though even then not following blindly.

The fact is, the Pentagon’s program managers are still a bit woozy with Bush-era extravagance. Dempsey and his colleagues are slapping their faces, warming the coffee, rolling up their sleeves … (insert your favorite clichéd metaphor).

Still, it’s worth noting that in 1985, at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War arms build-up, the Pentagon’s budget (adjusted for inflation, to make it comparable to today’s dollars), amounted to $575 billion.

By comparison, President Obama’s defense budget for next year totals $525 billion, not including the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere. When the wars are included (and Reagan’s budget included the cost of a few “small wars”), it amounts to $671 billion.

In other words, despite Ryan’s criticism of the administration’s cuts, Obama is requesting (again, in inflation-adjusted terms) either 7 percent less or 16 percent more than Reagan at his peak. (By the way, personnel costs don’t explain the growth. Personnel accounts for about one-third of the defense budget, now and in the Reagan era. Pay and benefits are much higher now, but the number of active-duty troops is much lower, so the two trends cancel each other out.)

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: In an era when we face no foes of remotely comparable military power, how could it be that we need to spend roughly as much money as we spent when the Soviet Union was still alive, the Cold War was heating up, the border between East and West Germany was an armed garrison, and the nuclear arms race was spiraling upward?

Yes, we face foes today, but they don’t confront us with echelons of tanks, armadas of fighter-bombers, or giant aircraft carriers fronting vast blue-water navies—nor do the threats they pose require the deployment of such big-ticket items to the extent that they once did.

If Congressman Ryan wants to do his job, follow through on the logic of his critique, and start analyzing the defense budget, that would be a service. Otherwise, he’s just jabbering.

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