Korb and Thompson on Military Spending

Today’s Los Angeles Times features an op-ed by Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, and Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, that is worthy of attention. The theme, cutting military spending, isn’t particularly original. It has grown into a regular topic of conversation across the media spectrum, with the New York Times featuring an editorial this past Sunday making the case for real cuts in Pentagon spending, not the half-hearted cost-shifting that Defense Secretary Gates is busy selling these days. Ben Friedman and I wrote about cutting military spending in the LA Times a few months ago, and I collaborated with Larry Korb on this same subject at The National Interest Online. Nothing particularly newsworthy there.

Loren Thompson’s contribution is significant, however. Building on his entry at the National Journal’s National Security Experts blog earlier this month,he signals a willingness on the part of an established Washington insider to reconsider some fundamental propositions that have guided his work – and inside-the-Beltway thinking – for years.

One of Lexington’s bread-and-butter issues has been finding ways to grow the military budget. I don’t expect that to change entirely. Perhaps now, however, the focus will be on steering a finite and shrinking military budget to particularly worthwhile projects, and jettisoning the force structure that serves decidedly unnecessary or unwise missions (e.g. invading and occupying medium-sized countries in Southwest and Central Asia).

A related goal is to give U.S. taxpayers a break, and get others to spend more for their own defense. In this vein, I don’t agree with all of their predictions. I doubt that the Littoral Combat Ship will have much of a foreign market with a price tag exceeding $600 million a piece (when one includes the mission modules that each LCS will carry). I likewise am skeptical that the Joint Strike Fighter will attract a lot of buyers if the price continues on its current path – approaching $150 million a piece. Some countries that had previously committed to the JSF program, including Denmark and the Netherlands, are now getting cold feet.

That said, the bottom line in the Korb-Thompson collaboration is spot on, and worth repeating:

The big question for policymakers is not whether defense spending will be cut — that is inevitable — but how global security will be maintained as the U.S. role diminishes….

It appears the only way this can be accomplished without encouraging aggression is to expect more of allies and friends. In other words, countries such as Germany, Japan and India must help fill the strategic vacuum created by America’s retreat.

[…]

The White House has already embarked on a series of initiatives to engage allies in more robust security roles while loosening the export restrictions that impeded arming them. These steps may have trade benefits for America, but their real significance is that America’s eroding economic might makes unilateralism too costly to be feasible. Washington needs to help overseas friends play a bigger security role so it can concentrate on rebuilding its economy.

Congrats and kudos to them both for setting forth such a clear and convincing argument for a dramatic change of course.