Commentary

Newt’s Defense Gift: Georgia on My Mind

By Ivan Eland
November 24, 1997

House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently called for higher defense spending, which would soak up part of the federal budget surplus that may soon be at hand. In short, like a lot of politicians, he’s already working on how to spend money that has yet to come in. Gingrich offered this argument for increased military expenditures: “I don’t want us to be strong enough to win narrowly. I want us to be so strong that no one can compete with us.”

But if there’s one thing that’s absolutely clear in the post-Cold War world, it’s that the United States already has bone-crushing military supremacy over any other nation. In fact, the United States is currently spending so much on defense compared with other nations that our military would remain the most powerful one on the planet even if our defense expenditures were cut significantly.

Hawks complain that defense spending has fallen to a little more than 3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. But that’s simply a measure of how much of the economy’s productive capacity is absorbed by defense spending. A better way to measure the adequacy of our national defense is to compare the absolute level of the U.S. defense budget with the threat the nation faces. The amount we now spend on defense is roughly what we were spending in the late 1970s during the Cold War, and it comes to about $1,000 per year for every American.


Providing a strong national defense is a fundamental function of government. But larding the defense budget with systems we don’t need, to oppose a threat we don’t face, is a waste of money — a lot of money.


In the post-Cold War world, no other single nation comes close to spending as much as the United States does on defense — a whopping $260 billion per year. The United States spends more than all of its allies — including the next most potent military powers in the world — combined. (In fact, some NATO officials fear that the U.S. military will outpace those of the Europeans to such an extent that allied forces will no longer be able to operate effectively together.) At most, the Russians and Chinese each spend $70 billion to $80 billion per year, and the actual total may be much less. Moreover, most of that money goes to holding together creaking, bloated militaries rather than funding development and production of new weapons. Equally significant, the most unfriendly nations — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba and North Korea — spend a paltry $15 billion per year combined.

U.S. supremacy is more than just budgetary. The United States has the only fully integrated military in the world. Other nations may buy sophisticated weapons, but only the U.S. military combines transportation assets with military information systems that coordinate the command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) needed to use those weapons effectively. Many analysts believe that advances in C3I will revolutionize the future battlefield by making weapons more effective. Because the United States has unparalleled capabilities in C3I, its overwhelming dominance of future battlefields is likely.

Such dominance should allow the United States to trim some of the “overkill” from its defense budget. For example, the United States currently has three new tactical fighter programs in development or production, although today’s benign geopolitics barely justifies even one. The U.S. Navy is retiring subsurface and surface vessels before their useful lives have ended to make room for expensive new submarines and large destroyers — weapon systems that were much more useful during the Cold War.

Those weapons are just a few examples of military purchases that have little or nothing to do with defending the nation adequately. They’re jobs programs, pure and simple. And not coincidentally, more than a few of those jobs are in states that happen to be home to key members of the Republican congressional leadership. The extra destroyer, added by Congress to the other three unneeded destroyers requested in the Clinton administration’s 1998 budget, will be produced in Mississippi, home of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. The eight extra C-130J transport planes added by Congress are produced in Georgia, home of Speaker Gingrich.

Providing a strong national defense is a fundamental function of government. But larding the defense budget with systems we don’t need, to oppose a threat we don’t face, is a waste of money — a lot of money. That Republicans, who claim to be careful about budgetary matters and government waste support such spending is deeply disappointing.

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