Commentary

The Military We Need

As the Senate begins a historic debate over the future of the war in Iraq, it should also prepare for a fundamental debate over the purpose of our military, and the tools that the military needs to fulfill its missions. The recent release of President Bush’s budget for fiscal year 2008 illustrates more than ever the need to streamline our military apparatus and cut weapons that do nothing to strengthen our national security.

A cursory glance at top level items shows that we are still purchasing weapons designed to fight the Cold War, 16 years after its end. Al Qaeda has neither a navy nor an air force, and yet the Bush administration plans to continue funding the Virginia class submarine (price tag: more than $3 billion per vessel), and the enormously costly F-22A Raptor (nearly $340 million each).

The Marine Corps’ V-22 remains alive and kicking (read: crashing), too, despite past attempts to kill it. The tilt-rotor aircraft is costly ($110 million each), dangerous (approximately 30 servicemen have been killed in various training accidents over nine years), and unnecessary (other aircraft based on proven technologies could just as easily transport Marines and their equipment to and from the battlefield).

Government largesse insulates the military-industrial complex from market forces, and the Pentagon often purchases weapons systems on the basis of sales pitches by defense contractors rather than the strategic recommendations of military experts.

And domestic political considerations corrupt the process still further. Is it any surprise that the Pentagon steers contracts and bases to certain congressional districts? For example, parts for the F-22A are made in 42 states.

Perhaps this latest budget will finally break the Iron Triangle. Lawmakers are reportedly suffering from “sticker shock” after learning that the defense budget request totals more than $700 billion, and who can blame them? That figure includes $235 billion more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on top of the more than $350 billion already spent on those conflicts.

The outrageous cost of the Iraq war — in both blood and treasure — helps to explain why many senators, including many Republicans, are opposing the President’s escalation plan.

But those aspects of the defense budget not related to the ruinous Iraq war also require scrutiny. Regular Pentagon spending in the 2008 budget totals $481 billion, an 11 percent increase over present. Why so much?

In optimizing our military, we must consider both the supply side — the numbers of troops, planes and ships — and the demand side, as in, where, when and why this military will be sent to fight. We must review each and every mission, and evaluate them according to a crucial set of criteria: Is it vital to our national security? Have we exhausted all available alternatives? And does it have a reasonable chance of achieving its stated objective at an acceptable cost?

Experts at both Cato and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities have been asking these questions for some time, and we are hardly alone. The V-22 has become a whipping boy for a number of think tanks. The Project on Governmental Oversight, a non-partisan organization that exposes corruption and other misconduct in the federal government, continues its war on the F-22A, and the Air Force’s costly tanker program. Taxpayers for Common Sense criticizes several programs associated with missile defense and the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But these and many other programs continue unabated.

Every weapon system, every proposal to increase the size of the force, every plan for deploying our military abroad or expanding current operations must be scrutinized. Even the most powerful country in the world must make choices.

Our citizens’ hard-earned tax dollars are at stake, and our soldiers’ lives are on the line. In credit for their contribution, politicians on both sides of the aisle should welcome a real debate on defense spending. They should ensure that our troops are being provided with essential equipment, and that precious defense dollars are not diverted to extravagant projects.

The global campaign against al Qaeda and its allies is important. We must insist that the Pentagon budget be allocated according to strategic necessity, not political expediency.

Ben Cohen is president of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Christopher Preble is Cato Institute foreign policy expert.