After a traumatic attack on US soil, lawmakers were quick to authorize nearly unlimited funds for the Pentagon to rout terrorists who killed thousands of American citizens – and to keep them from ever doing it again.
The ever-increasing defense budget changed the way the Pentagon did business, and not always for the better. “In some respects, it lost the ability to prioritize and make the hard choices,” says Todd Harrison, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). “Instead of having to choose, ‘Let’s do this,’ or ‘let’s do that,’ it was, ‘We don’t have to choose, so let’s do both.’ ”
Without any pressure to make tough choices, Mr. Harrison says, the Pentagon’s budget has grown by roughly three quarters in real terms since 1991.
Today the Afghanistan war is the longest in US history. It is also the second most expensive after World War II, costing some $1.3 trillion adjusted for inflation, according to CSBA’s calculations.
Yet even with a vast budget, the Pentagon was initially slow to get US troops the equipment they needed to fight wars. For example, some US defense officials lamented their inability to get more heavily armored humvees to soldiers sooner. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lambasted the building he ran for favoring “exquisite” weapons systems over fast and simple solutions that could save the lives of everyday soldiers.
Far more quickly, but at great cost, the Pentagon began to shift its research and development process, rapidly fielding equipment for war fighters.
Today, however, with the enormous pressure to lower the budget amid the nation’s economic crisis – which, some note, has been exacerbated by the expensive wars America has waged during the past decade – the Pentagon is faced with some tough choices about how it will spend its money in the future. It may chose to forgo counterinsurgency operations, which are expensive in both blood and treasure, for campaigns like Libya, which is being waged at the relative bargain price, Harrison points out, of $1 billion through September.
The challenge, US military officials warn, is not making easy but, rather, smart cuts. “Now we’re quickly coming back to an era where you have to make the hard choices,” Harrison says, “about what we can do, or where we’ll have to accept risk.”