Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently announced that the Department of Defense (DoD) had found “at least $100 billion in savings” and that he was “curtailing or canceling troubled or excess programs that would have cost more than $300 billion if seen through to completion.” President Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, echoed Gates’ proposal to cut defense spending. These "cuts," however, should not be confused with an actual, immediate reduction in current defense spending.
What these cuts really represent is the projected savings that would be gained over the next five years by not growing the existing budget. This plan is really just a commitment not to spend more money in the future; it’s not a plan to actually spend less money this year than last year, or even to keep spending at the same level. In fact, Mr.Gates was clear on that point. And to be sure, he should be commended for exercising some fiscal restraint (something DoD isn’t usually known for) – particularly during continued uncertainty about economic recovery. But as defense spending continues to amass nearly half of federal discretionary spending, his proposal is hardly cause for celebration.
'Efficiency savings' vs. real cuts
To begin, a little perspective is in order.
In 2012, the DoD’s base budget for the fiscal year (FY) will be $553 billion (excluding roughly $150 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan). This is $13 billion less than the department originally projected, but still represents close to 3 percent real growth from last year's budget. The Gates plan aims at further reduction in FY 2013 and FY 2014 to finally arrive at zero real growth in FY 2015 and FY 2016.
If a hypothetical zero growth DoD budget averages $550 billion a year, then the average savings per year is $20 billion. This is a lot of money, but still less than 4 percent of the total military budget. A step in the right direction? Yes, but hardly a windfall – and not a real reduction, but simply not growing the budget to not spend $20 billion on some things, to be able to spend $20 billion on something else.
US defense spending out of whack
The $600-plus billion a year the US spends on defense is roughly what the entire rest of the world combined spends on defense – yet the entire world isn’t our enemy or a military threat. China is often cited as the next big threat on the horizon, but the US still significantly outspends the Chinese on defense. Moreover, with wealthy allies such as Japan and South Korea, why does the US alone have to shoulder the burden of the Chinese challenge (assuming China is indeed a future threat)? And why do we wring our hands in great angst over North Korea and Iran when US defense spending is larger than the gross domestic product (GDP) of either country? (In fact, it eclipses the GDP of all but about 20 of the richest countries in the world).
The real story behind Gates’ plan is that as long as post-cold war foreign policy remains on autopilot, we will continue to have unnecessarily large defense budgets. The reality is that our nation could spend significantly less and still be secure. America is in a favorable geostrategic position with friendly countries to the north and south and two vast oceans on our flanks. We do not need – as we did during the cold war – forward deployed military forces around the world to be secure. (Even before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of the more than 1 million active duty military nearly, 250,000 were deployed overseas).
Leave cold-war deployment strategies
We no longer need to contain the Soviet Union and there is no global-hegemonic, rival-superpower as its equivalent successor.
There are few direct nation-state military threats that we cannot already deter or defeat. And none have the power projection capability to threaten the US homeland. Moreover, the US strategic nuclear arsenal – even if scaled back by Mr. Obama’s proposed New START reductions – acts as a powerful deterrent against any countries armed with nuclear weapons (even the likes of North Korea and Iran, if the latter ever becomes a nuclear power).
Many of our allies can and should start financing their own security instead of taking shelter under an American umbrella. The economy of the European Union is as large or larger than the US economy, yet the US spends roughly twice what our European allies spend on defense. So why are there nearly 80,000 American troops deployed in Europe when the Europeans can more than afford to pay for their own security needs? The situation is similar in East Asia, where the US has upward of 70,000 troops deployed. Yet Japan has the third-largest economy in the world, and South Korea’s economy (13th largest in the world) eclipses North Korea’s by more than 30 to 1. So they, too, can afford to pay for their security needs.
US needs new strategy, not more spending
Moreover, the military is not the best way or means to deter or defeat the terrorist threat that confronts us. It is important to remember that the large US military, with its forward-deployed global presence, was not an effective defense against 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001. And virtually every terrorist plot that has been thwarted since 9/11 has been the result of intelligence and law enforcement, not US military operations. Finally, the US military presence in foreign countries – particularly Muslim countries – is a root cause for fueling the anti-American sentiment that is often a first step towards terrorism, making it easier for terrorists to recruit to their ranks.
The real challenge is not to find “efficiency savings” in the DoD – reducing overhead and growth, but continuing to perpetuate an outsized budget to sustain “the US military’s size, reach, and fighting strength” as advocated by Gates. The real challenge is to redefine our strategy, one that focuses on defending America, rather than the whole world, through scaling back the sprawling US military footprint around the globe. (There are some 195 countries in the world, and the US has military forces deployed in more than 150 of them.) This is the only way to truly save money.
The plan Gates has touted amounts to defense spending legerdemain to find $100 billion worth of efficiency savings to maintain the defense budget at or near it’s current level over the course of five years. That’s merely a promise to stop budget growth by the end of the next five years – a promise not to spend an additional $100 billion dollars.
But if we redefined our strategy to meet our true national security requirements (rather than broad global security), we could instead realize a real reduction of $100 billion (perhaps more), in the defense budget, phased in over five years – starting now.
Charles V. Peña is senior fellow at the Independent Institute and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project. Mr. Peña is the author of the award-winning book, "Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism."