Defense Spending Boost

InsideDefense reports ($) that the White House’s Office of Management and Budget will give the Pentagon a spending increase – two percent real budget growth annually from fiscal years 2011 to 2015. The boost amounts to $60 billion over the period. The proposed FY 2011 non-war military budget will therefore be $556.4 billion rather than $541.8. That’s a win for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Previous plans had called for spending to grow only with projected inflation–0 percent real growth–but Gates resisted, arguing that the cost of defense programs grows faster than inflation.

The growth would relieve pressure on research, development and procurement spending on weapons and platforms. Embracing counterinsurgency has caused the military to spend more on labor and less on technology. The wars have encouraged Congress to annually increase benefits and pay for military personnel and veterans while expanding the size of ground forces. Thus real personnel costs, which Jim Arkedis recently estimated at over $300 billion a year, have soared. If overall spending doesn’t rise, the easiest place to find money to cover these costs is in new technology. You can’t really cut operational costs, which are also growing, without cutting the size of the force.

Those dynamics encouraged Gates’ proposed cuts to big ticket procurement items, like the F-22, last spring. His acolytes called him a revolutionary, but he was just balancing the books. The cuts harmed the high-technology end of the defense industry and outraged the Congressmen who protect the jobs it provides. As Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service shows in this October House testimony, more procurement cuts were inevitable without a spending boost. This one isn’t big enough to solve the problem, but it mitigates it. That’s too bad, because the technology/manpower fight was pushing more of the military-industrial complex to attack the counterproductive idea of fighting terrorism with counterinsurgency.

There is some grounds for hoping that the spending increase won’t occur. OMB issued a half-hearted denial, saying that the President hasn’t decided yet, and, in general, future defense spending plans rarely hold up. New actors and pressures emerge with time. Still, for those of us who want a restrained defense posture, which would allow massive spending cuts, this decision, like the double-down in Afghanistan, is dissapointing but not surprising.

Obama seems to have convinced Fareed Zakaria that he wants to cut down on defense commitments, but there is no evidence of such thinking in his administration’s personnel and stated defense goals.  The administration wants the military that most of Washington does, one meant both to cause social transformation in unruly states and so dominate the world that allies and enemies don’t explore their own military potential. I don’t know what the minimum cost of chasing those dreams is, but clearly it’s not cheap. Gimmicky efforts to legislate away procurement overruns may hoodwink liberal defense spending skeptics, but they don’t save real money. That requires lessening your defense ambitions. Plan for less war, and you can cut force structure and buy and hire less.