Commentary

Hike Military Funding? Lining the Pockets of the Defense Bureaucracy

By Ivan Eland
September 23, 1998

Secretary of Defense William Cohen and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are asking President Clinton for large increases in defense spending. After news reports of the Air Force’s difficulty in retaining pilots and other recent “horror stories” about military readiness, many Americans might be forgiven if they think such a hike in funding is justified. In fact, it is outrageous.

It is suspicious that all of the readiness horror stories begin to surface just as a new pot of taxpayer’s money is becoming available. The military — which is no different from any other government bureaucracy — would like to get its share of the budget surplus loot. One is reminded of the annual “red scare,” — which arose almost every spring during the Cold War — that was timed to coincide with congressional hearings on the military budget. Only after the Cold War did it become clear that the Soviet military machine was not so awesome after all.

Despite the demise of its superpower rival, the United States still spends about $270 billion per year on national defense, or roughly an average of $1,000 for every man, woman and child. This level of spending — before any proposed increase — is about 85 percent of the average annual amount the United States spent during the Cold War.


The current defense budget roughly reflects Pentagon plans to have enough forces to fight two major wars nearly simultaneously.


When the U.S. annual budget for national defense is compared with that of other nations, the true magnitude of U.S. defense spending becomes clear. U.S. defense spending roughly equals the combined spending of the next 10 nations on the list — eight of which are our wealthy allies (only Russia and China fall outside this group). The U.S. share of worldwide military spending increased from 27.5 percent in 1986 during the height of the Reagan military buildup to 32 percent in 1995. Today, the United States spends more than all of its wealthy friends and allies combined and almost one and a half times the amount spent by all of its rich NATO allies combined (the next most capable militaries in the world). More important, the United States spends over 3.5 times the combined spending of nations that are “potential threat states” — Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba and North Korea.

In short, even if any of those nations — with their antiquated militaries, many of which are organized according to discredited Soviet principles — becomes a direct threat to the United States, America has bone-crushing superiority. Some of those forces have some capable weapons, but only the United States has a truly integrated military — that is, U.S. forces have excellent command and control, intelligence, logistics and training to make their weapons work effectively.

The current defense budget roughly reflects Pentagon plans to have enough forces to fight two major wars nearly simultaneously. The National Defense Panel — an independent body consisting of retired military and civilian experts — questioned the continued use of this force-sizing criterion. The panel suspected that it was being used to protect and justify existing military forces and questioned the likelihood of the United States fighting two wars at once.

As the likelihood of fighting two nearly simultaneous wars has waned, the Department of Defense — being an adaptable bureaucracy — has adjusted its emphasis from fighting wars to international babysitting. The Pentagon now voraciously demands more resources to conduct peacekeeping and nation-building missions that actually undermine the readiness to fight a serious war. Because readiness is difficult to measure, selected horror stories should not be used to create hysteria and justify an increase in defense spending. Much of the problem with pilots leaving the Air Force results from numerous periods away from their families conducting mundane peacekeeping missions overseas (for example, the drudgery of enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq). After all, military people signed up to be warriors, not nannies. In addition, forces training for and conducting peacekeeping missions sacrifice valuable training to fight wars. Eliminating such missions would not only save money but also eliminate much of the readiness problem. The Pentagon does not need more funds; it needs a more focused and rational mission.

Indeed, a ready force can be retained at a much lower budget level. That objective can be accomplished by shrinking the size of the force and eliminating procurement programs that are unneeded or that are relics of the Cold War — for example, the F-22 fighter, the V-22 vertical take-off and landing transport aircraft, the Comanche helicopter, the CVN-77 aircraft carrier and the New Attack Submarine.

In the current international environment — where there are no first-class adversaries — the United States could reduce its defense budget by $100 billion to roughly $170 billion and still be, by far, the world’s most powerful nation militarily. After all, with two great oceans as moats and no strong rival in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has one of the most secure geostrategic positions in history. The desired spending increase is merely an attempt by the defense bureaucracy to “get it while the gettin’s good.” The president is in a weak position to resist the appeal for more money and can only be helped politically by granting it. With its penchant for pork-barrel spending, the Congress is even more susceptible to the request. Alas, only the beleaguered taxpayer will suffer.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.