How Much Defense Spending Is Enough?

Over at the National Interest, my boss Ted Carpenter has been slugging it out with former senator Jim Talent over (originally) Fred Thompson’s proposal to spend 4.5% of GDP on defense.

Ted notes correctly that we already spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, but Sen. Talent is nonplused. To the contrary, he protests that

the Navy must buy new DDG-1000 destroyers, ramp up procurement of Virginia-class submarines, and buy large numbers of littoral combat ships and the next-generation cruiser. The Air Force must buy its new superiority fighter, the F-22, as well as Joint Strike Fighters or equivalent aircraft and additionally fund its strategic-airlift requirement, design and build a new tanker and develop an interdiction bomber to replace the B-52. The Army must modernize and replace almost its entire capital stock of fighting vehicles.

How does Ted oppose doing the things Sen. Talent says we “must” do? Because, according to Talent, he

ignores the risks created by: the collapse of democracy in Russia, the rapid growth of Chinese power and the reemergence of Chinese national ambitions, the proliferation of nuclear weapons to rogue states and unstable governments, the rise of Islamic fanaticism empowered by the tools of asymmetrical warfare, and the intense ethnic and religious rivalries that have led to genocide on a vast scale in Europe, Africa and Asia in the last twenty years.

This is an interesting exercise in bait-and-switch. So the justifications for buying new battleships, the Joint Strike Fighter, and a new bomber are supposed to include all of these things? How is the Joint Strike Fighter going to deal with the collapse of democracy in Russia? How would new battleships help us deal with nuclear proliferation? And how would a new bomber help us deal with “the rise of Islamic fanaticism empowered by the tools of asymmetric warfare” or “the intense ethnic and religious rivalries that have led to genocide on a vast scale in Europe, Africa and Asia in the last twenty years”?

The only plausible case Mr. Talent could be making is that we should be preparing these tools because ultimately we’re going to have a shooting war with the Chinese. And indeed, if one were inclined to look seriously at the prospect of a shooting war with the Chinese, many of these tools are ones you’d like to have. Then again, a shooting war with the Chinese would also collapse the global economy and possibly have macroeconomic effects that would be felt for decades. Also, a lot of people would die.

Alternatively, if we’re going to get ourselves ready to replicate our experience in Iraq with Iran, the responsible thing to do would be to scrap a lot of these technologies and invest heavily (and quickly!) in a large-scale expansion of the ground forces. The men and women who have taken orders from this administration in the Army and Marine Corps have served valiantly, but they aren’t supermen. At some point, those who advocate endless wars in the Middle East (to be fair, I’m not sure what Sen. Talent’s views are on the Iran question) are going to have to decide which is more important: these large-ticket defense items, or equipping the DOD with the tools it needs to enact the strategies given it by the political leadership in this country.

Alternatively, we could spend 10 or 12 percent of GDP on defense, but I haven’t heard that proposal floated in serious quarters. Another alternative would be to continue initiating wars in the Middle East, continue preparing for war with China, and continue all of the other security commitments America has taken on in the past decades, on what would be the shoestring budget of 4.5 percent of GDP, inadequate to support any of these policies sufficiently.

It’s not clear how Sen. Talent proposes to deal with these tradeoffs, but what’s certainly unhelpful is pretending that the DDG is a workable solution to proliferation. In addition, given that he throws around accusations of “weakening” the United States as opposed to a “strong” United States, it’s worth observing that the charge is coming from a proponent of the current war, which has done more than anything in 40 years to weaken our country.

For a much sounder assessment of where we are and where we should go, see Richard Betts’ article in the current Foreign Affairs, “A Disciplined Defense.”