One of the sleeper issues President Obama will need to address soon is how much to spend on national defense. Scarcely discussed in the campaign, defense spending is arguably the most important long-term decision a president makes. At stake is not only the short-term safety of Americans, but the ability of the United States to remain a world leader.
Today, there is an emerging mismatch between annual defense budgets and long-term defense requirements. The disparity is rooted in unwise decisions made in the 1990s by Congress and the Clinton administration.
During that period's "peace dividend," the administration took a holiday from procuring new weapons and modernizing many weapons systems. The size of the armed force shrunk, and the process of replacing old systems with new ones decelerated. Though many technical innovations have been added in recent years, the armed force today is much smaller. Compared with the late 1980s, the Air Force has some 2,500 fewer aircraft and the Navy fleet has less than half the number of ships.
Did we not need a larger force, you ask, when we faced the formidable threat from the Soviet Union? Put aside for the moment how much military force is still needed to deter Russia and other large powers; the fact remains that, while we never fought the USSR in a hot war, we are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and undertaking other military operations — countering terrorists in the Philippines and Horn of Africa, for example. Today's smaller force is being asked to do more than a much larger Cold War force was asked to do after Vietnam.
All this use takes a toll on the readiness and quality of the force. Fatigued by nearly 30 years of service, F-15 fighter aircraft are cracking up and falling from the skies. In 2007, a sizeable portion of the Navy's aging maritime patrol aircraft, the P-3, was grounded for wing repairs. The National Guard shows real signs of exhaustion, forced to cannibalize equipment at home to support deployments in Iraq.
The biggest long-term budgetary challenge to our armed force is exploding entitlement spending. In fiscal 2008, only 30 percent of the federal budget was discretionary — i.e., not mandated for entitlement programs. This compares with more than 65 percent of the budget allocated for discretionary programs in 1965. If the forecast rate of growth in entitlement spending is maintained, unless the government massively increases taxes or reduces domestic spending, the U.S. will have nothing left for defense by 2041.
Experts at the Heritage Foundation estimate that maintaining an armed force capable of defending America requires spending at least 4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) on defense for at least the next five years. Some members of Congress agree; they are introducing legislation specifically recommending a 4 percent base line for defense.
This is not some number pulled out of thin air; it is based on an objective analysis of how much it will cost to build and maintain the right kind of military force. By historical standards, this level of spending is also affordable. It is roughly what Americans spend each year on leisure travel or on entertainment and food away from home.
Some politicians think that we could spend less on defense if we just eliminated "unnecessary" weapon systems. Unfortunately, the easy choices have already been made, by postponing modernization. The Pentagon faces a $100 billion annual shortfall in its procurement and modernization accounts. The question facing Mr. Obama is not whether to trim a few expensive and unnecessary weapons systems, but whether he is willing to forgo America's comprehensive military edge by skipping or delaying the construction of the next generation of modern weapons.
The economic recession may make meeting a 4 percent commitment politically more difficult, but only because we have not yet had an honest debate about where most government spending has been going. Since 1990, domestic discretionary spending has grown nearly twice as fast as spending on defense and homeland security. The billions more committed to bailouts and stimulus packages will only widen that gap. If budget cutters want to find money to offset spending increases, they should go where the growth is — and it is not in national defense.
A word of caution. More defense spending is needed, but not as a jobs program, as some defense contractors recommend. That would be bad economics (there are more productive ways to stimulate the economy, like reducing taxes). It also would be a misappropriation of public funds.
We should spend only as much as we need to defend ourselves — no more and no less.
• Kim Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (Heritage.org) and author of "Liberty's Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century."