Opinion

Want to improve US national security? Cut the defense budget.

Reining in irresponsible defense spending will combat the most significant threat to our national security: the debt.

By

Speaking last week at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with journalists, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked that he hoped to avoid “massive cuts” in defense, which “would be dangerous now, given the national security requirements that we have.” Yet cutting the baseline defense budget, which is now even higher than it was at the height of the Reagan buildup, may ironically be one of the best tools we have to meet our national security needs.

Adm. Mullen’s remark fails to acknowledge a central truth about national security: No country can buy perfect security no matter how much it spends, and any attempt to do so will eventually reach the point of severely diminishing returns.

The United States is now in its thirteenth straight year of uninterrupted growth in the defense budget, an unprecedented rise in spending that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has rightly termed a “gusher.” As the United States winds down its mission in Iraq and begins to plan for the first withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan next summer, it is long past time to reexamine whether the level and distribution of US defense spending actually enhances our national security capabilities.

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Misuse of taxpayer dollars

This type of inquiry will quickly reveal a fundamental disconnect between our defense spending and our strategic goals, particularly in the area of major defense acquisition projects. For too long the Defense Department and Congress have continued to direct scarce taxpayer dollars to massively expensive, over-budget, behind-schedule weapons programs that are inadequate to meet the current and future needs of our armed forces. A prime (but not the only) example of such a program is the Marine CorpsExpeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) – a 13.2 billion dollar project.

Proponents of the EFV, an amphibious assault vehicle, argue that it offers better armor and firepower than the Corps’ current model. Military writer Ed Hooper claims it will help the Marine Corps get back to its original combat role – “an amphibious force in readiness.”

Yet the EFV has no clear strategic rationale: The United States has not undertaken a contested amphibious landing since the Korean War’s Inchon invasion in 1950. Despite this fact, Hooper and others, including Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway, argue that we cannot afford to lose the capabilities the EFV might provide.

Over-budget projects

In fact, this program can and should be canceled. While the EFV can be launched significantly farther from shore than the Corps’ current vehicles, anti-ship missiles now have longer ranges as well, meaning our Marines and the ships that launch them would still be in dangerous waters in the newer EFV.

Moreover, the program has repeatedly failed to meet reasonable cost and performance standards. The Corps is currently testing new prototypes for the EFV because earlier models experienced repeated critical failures, and failed a 2006 operational assessment. The program is now at least eight years behind schedule, and the per-vehicle cost is predicted to be 168 percent higher than the original estimate.

Similar issues could be raised about the new $13.6 billion a piece aircraft carriers, especially since Mullen’s boss, Secretary Gates, has questioned why the US Navy needs 11 large, nuclear-powered carriers. According to Gates, “In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.”

Cutting spending helps tackle debt

Programs like the EFV result from the understandable desire to spend more money to protect against every possible contingency. But the funding for this $13.2 billion program could be better spent elsewhere. Instead of inveighing against budget cuts, Mullen should be the first to say that trimming unnecessary defense spending is a reasonable long-term investment in our national security capabilities. Cutting defense spending will deal with what he has called the most significant threat to our national security: the debt.

As presidents from Eisenhower to Obama have recognized, our ability to protect American national security interests is dependent on the strength of our economy at home. Continuing to fund strategically unnecessary defense acquisition projects, beyond the point of diminishing returns, will not only result in a force too overburdened and sclerotic to adapt to emerging threats, but will also result in an economy too weak to support a robust force. That would be the real dangerous path to follow.

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Laura Conley is a research assistant at the Center.

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