The real bang for the buck

Throw in homeland security, nuclear-weapons research, Veterans Affairs, and other odds and ends and the cost of defending America will rise to a new record: $667.2 billion next year.

Never before - not in World War II, not during the cold war - has the nation spent so much on defense, not even after adjusting for inflation.

But the United States is still not safe - at least, not safe enough given the amount of money being spent, a number of experts say. Their conclusion: National security depends on something more than the world's strongest military.

"A diverse and growing universe of voices, including former national security advisors, representatives of the business community, and the Bush administration itself, now recognizes that expanding the role of nonmilitary tools in our portfolio of security spending is necessary to keep Americans and the rest of the world safe," a task force of 14 defense and foreign policy experts said last week.

For example, the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget has identified $53.1 billion in potential 2006 defense cuts, mostly to eliminate costly "redundant weapons systems with little or no relevance to fighting terrorists." That would free up money for what's needed to fight terrorism and for peacekeeping and stability operations, it says.

The group advocates $40.5 billion in additional spending on nonmilitary security tools, such as diplomatic operations, international broadcasting and communication, nonproliferation programs to secure nuclear material abroad, development aid, and funding for international organizations, such as the United Nations.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been campaigning to transform the armed forces from its emphasis on fighting conventional wars into a leaner, more agile system to deal with the conflicts of today. Opponents of the US in Iraq or elsewhere are generally savvy enough not to challenge the mighty firepower of the US military directly. As one cost-saving measure, Mr. Rumsfeld announced last Friday his list of recommended base closings.

But to Marcus Corbin, a defense expert at the Center for Defense Information (CDI) and a lead author of the task force report, the Rumsfeld rhetoric is good but isn't reflected adequately in the budget. "Congress is not exercising its job of properly overseeing the defense industry and getting effective weapons at a reasonable price," he says.

The money involved is huge. Last week Congress approved a supplemental $82 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan and combatting terrorism worldwide. Also last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee was "marking up" - considering in detail - President Bush's request for $421 billion to run the Defense Department in fiscal year 2006. The corresponding House committee tackles that task this week.

That $421 billion is the largest Defense Department budget in real terms since the cold war ended in 1990. And it doesn't include any future supplemental budget request, usually billed as an emergency package, to cover the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Congressional Budget Office guesses another $85 billion will be needed in 2006.

Already, the cost of invading Iraq exceeds $200 billion, four times what former budget director Mitchell Daniels predicted in 2002 Also not included are other security costs, such as $20.7 billion for the Department of Energy's nuclear-weapons programs and other defense costs. Adding in that sum means defense spending next year, after accounting for inflation, will outdo any national defense budget since World War II, according to Winslow Wheeler, a defense expert at CDI.

If other security items are added in - homeland security ($40.4 billion), foreign policy and international stability ($31.7 billion), and Veterans Affairs ($68.3 billion) - the grand total reaches $667.2 billion. That exceeds any annual sum the US has ever paid for security in any war at any time, Mr. Wheeler notes. It even exceeds annual security spending today by all other nations on Earth.

Nonetheless, as a share of the economy, US defense spending is less than during the cold war, the Vietnam War, and World War II. The official defense budget amounts to something more than 4 percent of the nation's annual gross domestic product, its total output of goods and services. Some analysts want to see more dollars spent.

If the US wants to maintain its global leadership as the only superpower, "4 to 5 percent isn't going to cut it," says Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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