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The Conservative Curmudgeon
April 30, 2009

A Realistic Look at the U.S. Defense Budget — and America’s World Role
by Allan C. Brownfeld

The U.S. accounts for almost half of the world’s military spending. Iran’s defense budget is less than 1 percent, and the defense budgets of Russia and China are each less than 10 percent, of that of the U.S. The U.S. and its Western allies supply more than 95 percent of global arms sales.

Beyond this, what we have been spending money on may be quite different from our future requirements. Writing in The American Conservative, Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), notes that, “The time-honored adage says that generals always plan for the last war. American generals, taking things a step further, always plan for the last World War. As strategy analyst William Lind notes of our weapons-acquisitions practices, ‘most of what we are buying is a military museum.’ For all of the Pentagon’s lip service to ‘transformation’ and ‘revolution in military affairs,’ today’s force looks like a Buck Rogers version of the force we defeated the Axis Powers with: aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines, armor, infantry, bombers, fighters, special forces, and so on.”

In Huber’s view, “Our ‘Good War’ military was suited to symmetrical enemies whose political behavior could be compelled by defeat of their armed forces. We haven’t had a foe like that since the Berlin Wall came down; arguably, the Soviets ceased to be a serious military threat years if not decades before then. Yet the preponderance of our defense budget is spent on gee-wizardry to deter or fight a peer competitor that will never emerge…. The $2 billion B-2 stealth bomber is albatross enough, but the Air Force wants to replace it by 20l8 with an even costlier manned bomber that will have the same combat radius but carry fewer bombs.”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in presenting the Defense Department budget for 20l0, seeks to overhaul Pentagon spending and the way the military does business. His proposals include cutting back on the Air Force’s most advanced fighter jet, the F-22, but adding programs in other areas, so that the Pentagon budget is projected to grow by 4 percent in 20l0 to $534 billion. The new budget calls for more men at the expense of machines; more drones rather than top-end fighter jets and future bombers; more helicopters for combat troops rather than a replacement for the presidential chopper; more coastal vessels and fewer aircraft-carriers; better cyberdefenses but scaled back missile defenses and laser weapons. The new budget focuses more on today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and less to stave off potential future threats from Russia and China.

Explaining Secretary Gates’s new approach, The Economist argues, “To begin with, Mr. Gates has spent the past two years trying to avert military failure, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, rather than taking on powerful constituencies over contracts for expensive equipment. He has given notice for nearly a year that the Pentagon’s spending priorities would have to change to support its new emphasis on counter-insurgency. Moreover, the financial crisis means that America will not be able to spend more to equip itself both for small wars and big ones.”

Secretary Gates says that the budget is “one of those rare chances to match virtue to necessity, critically and ruthlessly separate appetites from real requirements.”

For many years the strain in defense spending has been relieved by supplemental spending — often off-the-books. But Gates says that long-term commitments — such as health care for wounded and traumatized troops and other forms of personnel spending for an expanding army and marine corps should be brought into the base budget. Special forces, so important in fighting terrorists and training allies, will also get a boost in numbers.

Among those big-ticket items that Gates considers no longer needed or too costly and “exquisite” to meet the Pentagon's requirements are the F-22 Raptor, a $l43 million supersonic jet fighter originally designed to shoot down Soviet aircraft; the DDG-l000 Zumwalt class destroyer, a $3.3 billion stealth combat vessel; and the Army’s Future Combat Zystem, an ensemble of futuristic tanks and armored vehicles.

The proposed cancellation or termination of these and other multibillion-dollar programs has already provoked a firestorm of criticism from lobbyists in the defense industry and Members of Congress whose districts will suffer manufacturing losses if the systems are cut. For many in Congress, defense spending has little to with the real military needs of the nation; it is viewed more as a jobs program.

In November 2008, a Virginia-based lobbying firm whose clients have benefited from earmarks promoted by Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), chair of the powerful defense appropriations subcommittee, was raided by the FBI. The PMA Group was founded in l998 by former top Murtha aid Paul Magliochetti, who previously served as a staff member of the House Committee on Appropriations. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said Murtha obtained $38 million in federal earmarks for PMA’s clients in the last fiscal year. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, PMA Group has earned $60 million in lobbying fees from dozens of clients over the past four years, most of them defense-related technology firms. PMA has attracted the attention of government watchdogs not only because of its ability to secure earmarks, but also for the large campaign donations the firm and its clients have given to lawmakers.

An example of the influence defense contractors have in the political arena can be seen in the fact that more than a dozen such contractors with business before Rep. James Moran (D-VA), a member of the powerful House Appropriations defense subcommittee, have donated thousands of dollars to Moran’s younger brother Brian, a candidate for governor of Virginia. According to The Washington Post, “Brian Moran filed a campaign finance report... that shows he collected $80,000 during the first three months of 2009 from l8 contractors that have been long-time backers of the congressman. Seven of the firms are awaiting approval of Moran-backed earmarks totaling $l4.5 million.”

While the defense contractors are getting rich, our military preparedness has deteriorated. In the recently published book America's Defense Meltdown, Winslow T. Wheeler, of the Center for Defense Information, and Pierre M. Sprey, a major participant in the formulation of the F-l6 and the A-l0, note that, “Defense is being showered with more dollars than at any time since the end of World War II.... The forces the Pentagon has been buying with those growing dollars have been shrinking steadily since l946. These shrinking forces are more and more antiquated: the average age of our aircraft, ships and tanks has been increasing relentlessly since the l950s. Despite all the extra money, training is shrinking, too. Key combat units are being sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan with less and less training.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Secretary Gates decried a defense budget riddled with “baroque” and irrelevant weapons at unaffordable cost. He warned that, “The spigot of defense funding opened by 9/ll is closing.” At just over 10 Army division equivalents, we have the smallest combat Army in the last 60 years, at the highest budget since the end of World War II. We now have a smaller Navy — under 300 combat ships — than at any point since l946, but the Navy’s budget is above the historic norm for the post-World War II era. Similarly, the number of wings of fighters and tactical bombers in the Air Force has collapsed from 6l in l957 to just 10 today. The budget, however, is well above the historic norm.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) says that the new Gates budget proposal is “a major step in the right direction.” For his part, Secretary Gates says that he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the response of lawmakers to his plans for shifting billions of dollars in Pentagon spending toward programs of immediate benefit to today’s wars. “It seems to me that a number of the responses have been thoughtful, and lawmakers have been willing to take this seriously and in the vein it was intended.”

The debate we need is not only one with regard to the changes called for by Secretary Gates — which are likely to be opposed bitterly by the lobbyists for defense-related industries and the members of Congress to whose campaigns they contribute — but one that considers what the appropriate role is for our country in the post-Cold War world.

In a new book, The Power Problem, Christopher Preble argues that our current defense posture is radically out of line with American interests, properly understood. He insists that the “common defense of the United States” could be secured by a military budget far smaller than the current one.

Gene Healy, a vice president at the Cato Institute, believes that, “We face no serious conventional threat abroad, nor do we need to fight continual counterinsurgencies to protect ourselves from terrorism. We can’t remake every ‘failed state’ the world over, and even if we could, terrorists would still be able to operate in places like Hamburg, Germany, where Mohammed Atta prepared for the September 11 attacks.... In an era of limits, the bloated defense budget shouldn’t be off-limits.”

With billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake, Secretary Gates can expect strong opposition from many quarters. Still, he has opened an important debate. While honorable men and women may differ about what our real needs are, defense spending should be related to such needs — and not be viewed as a jobs program or as a reward for the support of lobbyists — or as a blueprint to remake the world in our image.

See this column at News Blaze.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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© 2009 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation