Tag: defense spending

Misinformation from Heritage

The Heritage Foundation has a chart up on its blog, showing defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product and declaring that “Obama plan cuts defense spending to pre-9/11 levels.”

This is a standard rhetorical device for defense hawks (see the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Mitt Romney and lots of others) so it’s worth pointing out that it’s misleading. The unfortunate truth is that Obama is increasing non-war defense spending this year and seems likely to increase it at least by inflation in the near future.

It’s true that defense spending will probably decline as a percentage of GDP, assuming the economy recovers. But that’s because GDP grows. Ours is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950.  Meanwhile, we spend more on defense in real, inflation adjusted terms, than we did then, at the height of the Cold War. The denoninator has grown faster than the numerator. 

By saying that defense spending needs to grow with GDP to be “level,” you are arguing for an annual increase in defense spending without saying so directly. That’s the point, of course.

To be straight with readers, charts that show defense spending as a percentage of GDP should either show GDP growth over time or include a line that shows defense spending in real terms. Otherwise they fail to demonstrate that the decline in defense spending as a percentage of GDP is a consequence of growing GDP, not lower spending.

Here’s a chart from the Congressional Budget Office’s report, “The Long Term Implications of the Current Defense Plans,” that does this.

The assumption in analysis like Heritage’s is that defense spending should be a function of economic growth, not enemies and strategies for defending against them.  It’s easy to point out that this is strategically and fiscally foolish. And it’s worth noting, as I have on many occasions, that we face a benign threat environment and can cut defense spending massively as a result.

But there is something weirder going on here that warrants mention.  Arguing that wealth creation should drive defense spending is to attempt to divorce the military from its strategic rationale. That’s an implicit acknowledgement that defense spending is not for safety.  High military spending in this worldview is either an end in itself or a partisan or cultural tool.  That’s not much of a revelation, I guess.

O’Hanlon on Defense

Maybe you have wondered, is it possible to get an op-ed published in the Washington Post advocating increased US defense spending without any mention of the enemies the defense budget is meant to defend us against or the wars we might fight with them?  Yes! Michael O’Hanlon proves it.

He says: 1. The Pentagon needs two percent annual growth above inflation to maintain its current plans. 2. Therefore the zero percent real growth the Obama administration plans for the next five years is unwise and we need to add $150 billion over that period.

The first part is reasonable, but why should the Pentagon maintain all its current programs? O’Hanlon doesn’t say. What the article amounts to is an argument for higher defense spending because defense spending is expensive. That is not persuasive.

Also omitted is that fact that O’Hanlon is repeating the Secretary of Defense’s view. Here’s what Robert Gates said on April 7.

I don’t think that the department can sustain the programs that we have with flat growth. And therefore I believe that we need at least 2 percent real growth going forward.

Here’s O’Hanlon:

For the Defense Department to merely tread water, a good rule of thumb is that its inflation-adjusted budget must grow about 2 percent a year (roughly $10 billion annually, each and every year)…we need roughly 2 percent real growth per year, while Obama offers zero.

The zero percent real growth in defense spending figure that O’Hanlon takes issue with is from budget charts prepared by OMB. Time will tell whether that, Gates’ view, or something else becomes policy.  So it appears that O’Hanlon, knowingly, one hopes, is taking Gates’ view in an intramural Obama administration squabble. I’d say that’s worth knowing when you read this article.

Cooper vs. the Services

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) has a fairly radical proposal for reforming defense acquisition in Politico.

Cooper wants to put the military services’ acquisition staffs under the direct control of the Secretary of Defense. The idea is to liberate the staffs from the parochial perspectives that cause various pathologies in acquisition programs.

The oped implicitly blames large and consistent cost overruns in weapons programs on the services’ interests, which manifest in excessive requirements for platforms. For example, the Air Force’s religious attachment to the over-designed and thus wildly expensive F-22 has its origin in a peculiar self-image, one that sees the establishment of air superiority for strategic bombing as the Air Force’s main mission. You can tell a similar story about another contender in the Pentagon’s biggest white elephant sweepstakes: the Marine’s amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

Cooper is rejecting the more popular view that the trouble in acquisition is the lack of independent cost estimates and other failures in the contracting process. That technocratic view underlies the acquisition bill that just became law. Cooper is saying that the trouble is more what we want than how we buy it, and what we want is a consequence of the services’ power. To deal with that, you must either change the services’ conception of their interests (and note that such efforts are arguably underway, especially in the Air Force) or take power from them. He’s pushing for the latter.

The weakness in the oped is a failure to explain how moving the military’s acquisition personnel to OSD would change the incentives that cause officers to do their service’s bidding. They would still work for a service, after all, and face its promotion board. A more radical proposal would be to hand more power over acquisition to the civilians in OSD and remove redundant positions from the services.

Cooper also takes (another) shot at constant service shares – the tradition, dating to the Kennedy Administration, where the Army, Navy and Air Force all get consistent shares of the budget each year. That tradition stifles interservice competition and therefore innovation. Giving the lion’s share of defense spending to the ground forces would be a sensible outgrowth of our current defense strategy, which is manpower-intensive. The Navy and Air Force might then be forced to scramble for relevance, causing them to initiate many of the reforms to their procurement programs that Secretary Gates has proposed. (An even better tact would be to cut the defense budget massively but give more of it to the Navy, given that our current strategy encourages dumb wars).

Note that the suggestion to enhance service competition relies on decentralized institutions competing, whereas the main suggestion of the oped is to heighten the centralized authority of the Secretary. Whether these are contradictory ideas is academic, for now, because at least one is not going to happen soon. The service’s would go the mattresses to protect their control of their acquisition programs, and there is a no sign of a political constituency willing to pick that fight.

The GOP Is Not Serious about Cutting Down Spending

A month ago, President Obama issued a list of proposed spending cuts that I dismissed as “unserious” due to the fact that they were trivial when compared to his proposed spending and debt increases.  Today, the House Republican leadership released a list of proposed spending cuts.

I’d love to say I’m impressed, but I can’t.

Both proposals indicate that neither side of the aisle grasps the severity of the country’s ugly fiscal situation, or at least has the guts to do anything concrete about it.

The GOP proposal claims savings of more than $375 billion over five years, the bulk of which ($317 billion) would come from holding non-defense discretionary spending increases to no more than inflation over the next five years.

First, it should be cut – period.  Second, non-defense discretionary spending only amounts to about 17% of all the money the federal government spends in a year, so singling out this pot of money misses the bigger picture.  At least, defense spending, which is almost entirely discretionary, should be included in any cap.  But it has become an article of faith in the Republican Party that reining in defense spending is tantamount to putting a white flag in the Statue of Liberty’s hand.

The second biggest chunk of savings would come from directing $45 billion in repaid TARP funds to deficit reduction instead of allowing the money to be used for further bailing out.  That’s a sound idea as far it goes, but I can’t help but point out that the signatories to the document, House Republican Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, voted for the original $700 billion TARP bailout. Proposing to rescind the Treasury’s power to release the remaining funds, about $300 billion I believe, should have been included.

According to the proposal, the rest of the cuts and savings comes out to around $25 billion over five years.  Like the specific cuts in the president’s proposal, they’re all good cuts.  But the president detailed $17 billion in cuts for one year and I generously called it “measly.”  What am I to call the House Republican leadership specifying $5 billion a year in cuts?

Take for example, proposed cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is likely to spend around $65 billion this year.  Having recently spent a couple months analyzing HUD’s past and present, I can state unequivocally that it’s one of the sorriest bureaucracies the world has ever seen.  Yet, the House Republican leadership comes up with only one proposed elimination: a $300,000 a year program that gives “$25,000 stipends for 12 students completing their doctoral dissertation on issues related to housing and urban development.”  The only other proposed cut to HUD would be $1.7 billion over five years to the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.  This notoriously wasteful program is projected to spend over $8 billion this year alone.  Eliminate it!

The spending cuts the country needs must be substantial, serious, and put forward in the spirit of recognizing that the federal government’s role in our lives must be downsized.  Half-measures are not enough, and from the Republican House leadership, wholly insufficient for winning back the support of limited-government voters who have come to associate the GOP with runaway spending and debt.  For a more substantive guide to cutting federal spending, policymakers should start with Cato’s Handbook chapter on the subject.

Will the Military Industrial Complex Save American Foreign Policy?

Missing from most of the commentary on the Secretary of Defense’s big defense spending speech yesterday is the fact that the program cuts he proposed are largely a result of freezing the topline – keeping defense spending level (once you adjust for inflation) for the next decade.

For nearly a decade the country has really had two defense budgets – one for imagined conventional wars against states like China, another from nation-building, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. The first budget requires a small ground force and lots of big platforms operated by the Air Force and Navy. The latter requires much larger ground forces, a few niche capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and less high technology wonders.

The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first.  We have been increasing manpower in the Army and Marines – adding 90,000 new troops – and paying them way more (compensation per service member is up by almost half since 1998). Personnel costs are taking more of the budget.  And for more complex reasons, including health care costs, the operations and maintenance part of the budget – essentially the day to day cost of running the military – has also been growing fast when measured per service member.  (For details on these issues, read this testimony by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service.)

That was bound to squeeze the other big parts of the defense budget – research, development and procurement of new weapons systems. There is too much future cost in the budget for everything to fit without topline growth, so something had to give. Big weapons programs are where the most give is, if you don’t want to cut manpower.

That conflict was delayed while the budget topline grew, but now that it is flat, it erupts. The manpower intensive military that follows from our current policies is eating into the conventional military that delivers manufactoring jobs across the country and the high-technology dreams of our military leaders.

What will be interesting to see is whether this shift encourages those leaders and their friends on the Hill to take up the arguments that people like me have been making for years: that small wars are mostly dumb wars.  Preparation for these wars didn’t much hurt the military industrial complex before, now it does. 

An additional note: Gates’ criticism of the acquisition process was on the mark. Rather than blaming out of control weapons costs on the kind of contracts we write or crafty contractors, as the President seems to, Gates noted correctly that the trouble is the requirements process – what we want, not how we buy it.

Pentagon 1, Obama 0

Planning for the 2010 federal budget began in 2008. The Office of Management and Budget instructed agencies to prepare documents for the incoming administration showing “current services baselines” and program estimates for the coming fiscal year. That means “just explain what you’re spending now and project it forward for next year.” The idea was to allow the Obama appointees to shape the budgets quickly when they came into office.

The Pentagon, however, went through its normal budgeting process. It produced a budget that defied existing plans and expectations that FY 2009 would be the last year of the massive defense buildup that began in the last years of the Clinton administration. It adds $60 billion to the defense baseline above FY 2009 levels and $450 billion in planned spending over five years.

Many observers saw this as an attempt at a bureaucratic fait accompli, a move to lock the Obama administration into higher defense spending. According to this week-old story from CongressDaily, it worked. Megan Scully writes:

President-elect Obama’s choice for the no. 2 civilian slot at the Pentagon Thursday said he does not plan to make sweeping changes to the Defense Department’s fiscal 2010 budget request, which has been drafted.

When Obama decided to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, I asked whether we were keeping this defense budget and suggested that doing so would show that Obama will let the military services (who largely control the drafting of their budgets) push him around. For some time, the position of Democrats has been to give the Pentagon what it wants, either for fear of opening a line of attack for Republicans or because of agreement on the virtue of massive defense budgets.

This story suggests that little has changed. The FY 2010 increase will make any future decrease harder to achieve for political and programmatic reasons. This is one more sign that Obama’s occasional talk of realism and restraint in foreign and defense policy should not be taken seriously.

Clearly, the idea of scrubbing the budget “line by line” does not apply to agencies run in Virginia.