Analysis: Would a $700 Billion Budget Really Sink the Pentagon?

Pilots from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings taxi F-35As on the runway in preparation for a combat power exercise Nov. 19, 2018, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Pilots from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings taxi F-35As on the runway in preparation for a combat power exercise Nov. 19, 2018, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Senior Airman Justin Fuchs/Air Force

The debate over the size of the Trump administration’s Pentagon spending proposal for 2020 is already well under way, and as too often happens, no one can even agree on how to interpret the numbers involved, much less whether it makes sense strategically to spend more than $700 billion per year on the Pentagon and related activities like nuclear warhead work at the Department of Energy.

The confusion first arose when it was announced that the Defense Department was instructed to develop two budgets for fiscal year 2020: one at $733 billion and one at $700 billion, in line with a newfound administration interest in cost-cutting. The comparable figure for the current fiscal year is $716 billion, about halfway between the two. Yet the President just this week called $716 billion in defense spending “crazy” and suggested an end to the “uncontrollable arms race” with Russia and China.

Setting the 2020 budget at $700 billion would shrink annual defense spending by just over 2 percent, barely a haircut for an agency that received a whopping $165 billion in additional funds over the past two budget cycles.

Coverage of the contending budget numbers often describes the possible reduction in Pentagon spending as a “5 percent cut.” But this is a cut from where the Pentagon would like to be, not where it is now. By this logic, if Defense Secretary Mattis decided he wanted to raise his salary to $300,000 next year from $200,000 now, and he only got a quarter-million dollars, that would be a $50,000 “cut.”

For the sake of argument, let’s accept the 5 percent cut figure as a benchmark. That would still leave the Defense Department with one of its highest budgets since World War II. And much of that money could be spent far more efficiently if the Pentagon eliminated excess overhead, by reducing its 600,000-plus force of private service contractors, taking military personnel off of desk jobs, and streamlining its procurement process to curb cost overruns and overpayment on routine items.

But it gets worse. The National Defense Strategy Commission, a Congressionally mandated panel charged with assessing the adequacy of the Trump administration’s strategy proposal, has casually suggested that to meet what it views as our most important security commitments the Pentagon budget should be increased by 3 to 5 per cent per year above inflation. The commission has acknowledged that its proposal was not based on any careful analysis. But it is impressive nonetheless. A calculation by Taxpayers for Common Sense demonstrates that the high end of the commission’s proposed range would result in a Pentagon budget of $972 billion by 2024, a figure so large that it would be laughable. Yet key figures on Capitol Hill are already using the commission’s suggestion as a benchmark for next year’s budget debate, completely ignoring the nation’s staggering $21 trillion national debt and annual budget deficits already expected to exceed $1 trillion every year.

So what is the right number? That depends entirely on what we want our armed forces to do, and how efficient we are in providing them the wherewithal to do it. It is here that both the Trump strategy and the Congressional commission are wide of the mark. To talk of “winning” wars with nuclear-armed powers like China and Russia, or to view Iran or North Korea as challenges to be addressed by the use of military force, is a case of old thinking at its worst. We need a more sophisticated strategy that mixes diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military instruments of national power, with force as a genuine last resort. And we need to make tough choices, not assume that we can or should be able to meet every potential threat, no matter how unlikely.

The Trump administration’s trashing of the Iran nuclear deal, which was carefully negotiated by a multilateral group that included the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, is a case in point of the danger of replacing solid diplomacy with threats of military force. The deal was working to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which is what it was supposed to do. And abiding by it could have opened the door to negotiating with Tehran about reducing other sources of tension in the Middle East. Now, instead, the Trump administration is working overtime to portray Iran as a dire threat to U.S. security, after violating an agreement with Tehran that dramatically improved the security of the United States and its allies in the region. And the anti-Iran hawks on the Trump team may yet get us into a war that, as one analyst has pointed out, could make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan look like a walk in the park.

Rather than costing out an unrealistic strategy, Congress needs to subject the Pentagon’s proliferating list of missions to greater scrutiny. With a more realistic strategy, a $700 billion budget would far exceed the nation’s defense requirements, and no one would be arguing whether it makes sense to cut the Pentagon’s latest proposal by 5 percent.

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