- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009


The hollow defense budgets, peace dividends and the procurement holiday that marked the Clinton administration’s defense policy appear to be making a comeback.

The message hidden between the lines of the 2010 Defense Department budget released last week is that defense spending will decline in the coming years and that the military will be forced to do more with less. We’ve been down this road before; we cannot repeat the same mistakes.

Initial headlines fell for the bait: Most media coverage announced that President Obama did not deliver anticipated cuts and actually increased spending by 4 percent over the 2009 budget. But the real story lies in what will be inserted into the budget. By moving war costs out of the supplemental and into the base budget the reported growth is in fact minimal. This is why Defense Secretary Robert Gates greeted the budget release by announcing he would have to make some “tough choices.”

The story is bleaker in future years when the real costs of our baseline defense requirements will no longer be masked by supplemental appropriations. Take the growth of the military, for example. Supplemental funding bought the Army and Marine Corps more than 50,000 active duty personnel from 2001 through 2008. The price tag was roughly $6.8 billion in additional, basic defense costs. Future defense budgets will have to absorb these costs. Cutting end strength in order to protect favorite defense programs, as some Democrats in Congress propose, is not the answer.

We’ve learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that planning for two major regional contingencies requires a larger military. Decreasing the size of the military should not be an option - we owe this to our military families.

So, as the details of the defense budget are released in the coming months we can expect to see significant cuts to defense programs, particularly in essential modernization accounts. This carries considerable risk. Case in point is a recent Government Accountability Office study showing Air Sovereignty Alert operations - post-Sept. 11, 2001, operations that protect the homeland - are at risk due to aging aircraft and insufficient procurement. If the aircraft are not replaced by 2020, according to GAO, “11 out of 18 current alert sites could be without aircraft.”

The approach of fiscal restraint for defense comes on the heels of the president trying to spend his way out of the economic crisis on the domestic front. Through the stimulus bill, expanded Troubled Asset Relief Program funding, and the omnibus appropriations bill, the president has acted to ensure that that this year’s total discretionary spending will surpass the $1 trillion mark - more than we have spent on Iraq, Afghanistan and Katrina combined.

Is there wisdom to the inverse relationship between domestic spending and defense spending as we confront the economic crisis? The answer is no. Increasing defense dollars actually is an effective way to stimulate our economy. As Harvard economist Martin Feldstein points out, one of the best ways to induce rapid spending - the purported objective of the various bailouts - is to increase defense outlays. In particular, resetting our ground forces after five-plus years of fighting will sustain, and may even increase, domestic jobs. Similarly, increasing spending on defense facilities would provide a boon to the economy.

Most importantly, flat-lining defense spending is not the right national security policy in the midst of global financial uncertainty. History has proven time and time again that political instability almost certainly follows financial crises. As Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently testified before the Congress, the global economic crisis is having a far-reaching impact and is the ”primary near-term security concern of the United States.” The intelligence community rightly raises concerns over the security of our friends and allies. The crisis also invites opportunism by rogue states and terrorist organizations.

Missile defense policy offers a good example. Many anticipate deep cuts into these programs, yet strategic deterrence is precisely what will be required to bolster our allies and friends. A weakened global economy is unlikely to lead competitors and adversaries to decrease their strategic capability as some may hope.

In fact, the opposite is more plausible. Faced with fiscal constraints, Iran will likely double down on its ballistic missile program, while Russian support in halting Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions would run counter to its economic interests. Perceived reversal of U.S. commitment to missile defense runs the risk of threatening our credibility with our allies and may encourage others to proliferate as well.

Some will point to waste and mismanagement in the Defense Department as grounds for tightening the defense budget. To be sure, continued reform of procurement processes is essential. Cuts in programs that suffer from cost overruns are warranted if they reform the behaviors that lead to negative procurement outcomes in the first instance. But employing across the board cuts, as some in Washington propose, is a blunt instrument that does little to restructure the Defense Department’s business practices. Worse, it risks increasing these overruns.

The budget delivered last week would put baseline defense spending at 3.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). This is hardly persuasive in light of reported plans to spend $4.5 trillion or 22 percent of GDP on social entitlements and other mandatory programs.

In contrast to the 1990s, we know where our security challenges reside. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight against al Qaeda, Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs, the return of a more aggressive Russia and the rise of China all require not only words, but resources too.

Diplomacy to be sure is a necessary condition, but that effort will ring hollow absent a strong commitment on defense. This is particularly true during the current economic crisis.

John McHugh, New York Republican, is the ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide