A tug of war over defense spending this week harbingers budget conflicts to come as the irresistible force of rising military costs meets the immovable object of growing fiscal deficits.
On the one hand, a group of mostly Democratic lawmakers is urging the president's commission on reducing the national debt to consider wide-ranging cuts to the defense budget as a way to eliminate the deficit by 2015 — the commission's goal. For this group, such cuts are at the heart of a strategic effort to scale back America's global role and husband the nation's limited resources at a time of economic uncertainty.
"I've been for some time a critic of America's excessive military engagement with the rest of the world," Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, told reporters.
Mr. Frank and 56 other lawmakers, including Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, wrote this week to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — the blue-ribbon panel charged with recommending ways to eliminate the gap between the federal government's spending and income by 2015.
"Instead of protecting us against a clear and determined foe and enemy," the letter says, "Defense Department planning and strategic objectives now focus on stemming the emergence of new threats by maintaining a vast range of global commitments … We believe that such commitments need to be scaled back."
One the other hand, three conservative think tanks unveiled a report this month arguing that a strong military that could keep peace throughout the world is the essential foundation of American prosperity.
"Strength, not weakness, brings the true peace dividend in a global economy," wrote Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute; Edwin J. Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation; and William Kristol, a director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.
"Faced with a nuclear Iran, or a Chinese People's Liberation Army," cuts to the defense budget risk a "looming 'train wreck,'" they wrote.
The war of words comes as a new report from the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. finds that the U.S. military is near the bottom of the league when it comes to spending defense funds efficiently.
McKinsey partner John Dowdy told The Washington Times that of 33 countries they examined for the study, "the United States is the least efficient in turning money into units of firepower."
"The way we looked at outputs," he said, "the U.S. military is the most effective, but the least efficient … It is literally off the chart" when spending per military unit is considered.
One reason, he said, is that "the United States has a very large number of military personnel performing nonmilitary tasks."
"There are good reasons and bad reasons for that," he said, adding that one of the good reasons is that the U.S. often provides logistical support for its allies in a multinational force, as it is doing in Afghanistan. Some of the nations deploying forces there would not be able to do so without the airlift capacity provided by the Americans, Mr. Dowdy said.
Mr. Frank said this week that America's allies need to pick up some of the slack that might be left by cuts in the U.S. defense budget. "Some of our wealthier allies need to learn to get along without us," he said.
Pentagon chiefs have pledged to keep spending under control despite rising real costs and to find $100 billion in efficiency savings over the next five years.
"It's hard to argue against efficiency," said Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute to The Times. "But I don't think anyone really believes [the savings] will be enough to compensate" for a defense budget squeezed between a one percent rate of real growth and a three percent rise in real costs.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz acknowledged this week that "the reality is, defense budgets will likely continue to flatten even as we contend with rising personnel costs, operations, sustainment and acquisition costs as well."
With the purchasing power of Pentagon dollars in decline, he added, "we still have to do more with the same or fewer resources, squeezing every last bit of capability from our current and future weapons systems."
Benjamin H. Friedman of the libertarian Cato Institute, which supported Mr. Frank's letter to the deficit commission, argued that greater efficiency is not enough to achieve the scale of the cuts needed to eliminate the deficit.
This is not about "doing the same thing more efficiently," he said. "We want to reduce military spending by limiting the ambition it serves."
U.S. defense spending dwarfs that of the rest of the world. China, which has the second-largest defense budget, spends about a fifth of what the United States does — although some observers think official figures may understate Beijing's real level of spending.
Although the letter to the commission does not set out a target figure for defense cuts, a study earlier this year identified nearly a trillion dollars in spending reductions that could be made over the next ten years, according to Charles Knight of the liberal-leaning Project on Defense Alternatives.
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