Commentary

A Bigger Defense Budget Is Not Needed to Win the War on Terrorism

By Charles V. Peña
February 5, 2002

President Bush has proposed a $48 billion increase in defense spending, the largest increase in two decades. His $379 billion budget includes a pay raise for the military, as well as investment in precision weapons, missile defenses, unmanned vehicles and high-tech equipment for ground troops. The president claims that the increased spending is essential to win the war on terrorism.

But how will more defense spending win the war on terrorism? The answer is that it won’t.

It’s not a question of needing to spend more. What needs to be done is a reassessment of priorities and reallocation of defense spending accordingly. Although it might not be fair to accuse U.S. intelligence of “failure” to know about the planned attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, clearly the focus needs to be on what can be done better (realizing that the art of intelligence gathering and analysis is rarely certain or complete). One area that might require more resources is human intelligence - our ability to penetrate and gather information on terrorist organizations in the field. But that does not necessarily dictate a need to increase overall spending on intelligence. Rather, monies could be reallocated from some of our technical intelligence efforts (e.g., spy satellites), many of which are better suited for Cold War spying activities, to the harder task of human intelligence.

The need for a robust and expensive national missile defense must be put in perspective. Ballistic missiles are the least likely weapon of choice for terrorists because their use communicates a known launch point, which provides positive identification of the attacker for retaliation. That said, ballistic missiles from rogue states are indeed a future potential threat and a limited national missile defense system designed to protect the United States against such attacks is a legitimate goal. But the system must first be tested and proved reliable before deployment. Funding for national missile defense should be limited to the land-based system, which is the most mature technology, and designed to protect the U.S. homeland.

The current Quadrennial Defense Review calls for U.S. forces to be structured and sized for two theaters of operation in overlapping timeframes. That kind of requirement (i.e., fighting two major wars) made no sense in the post-Cold War environment in the absence of the former Soviet threat and makes less sense now for the war on terrorism. If Afghanistan is the “template” for future military operations, then we should use that template: an Air Force with more emphasis on long-range bombers; an Army with lighter forces designed to fix the enemy in place to be destroyed by airpower; a Navy with less emphasis on continuous forward deployment and carrier-based air power; and a Marine Corps designed to be more than just an amphibious landing force.

Furthermore, a true defense transformation and paradigm shift to joint operations rather than individual service requirements would result in a smaller - but still highly capable - force structure. Significant savings could be achieved by reducing the number of active-duty Army divisions by half, active-duty Marine Corps divisions by two-thirds, Air Force fighter wings by nearly one-third, Navy ships by one-third, and carrier battle groups with air wings by one-half. This smaller force would still be enough to fight the small- and medium-sized conflicts associated with the war on terrorism. And when combined with mobilized reserve forces, the United States would also have the capability to fight a traditional major war.

Reductions in military forces should be accompanied by a more restrained military posture, particularly overseas deployments, many of which are holdovers from the Cold War and have little to do with safeguarding vital U.S. national security interests. For example, the U.S. continues to station 100,000 troops in Europe as part of NATO even though the threat of invasion by Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces no longer exists. The same situation exists with a similar number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and Japan. These obsolete deployments need to be phased out.

In addition to reducing deployments, the United States needs to reassess the use of military force to intervene in a bewildering array of so-called “crises” around the world - from Haiti to Bosnia to Kosovo - that have nothing to do with protecting vital national security interests or the war on terrorism. Indeed, such actions may unnecessarily fan the flames of future terrorist actions.

The bottom line is that the United States already spends more than enough on defense. It’s not a question of “how much” is spent, but “how” the money is spent.

Charles V. Peña is a senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.