Policy Analysis No. 539

$400 Billion Defense Budget Unnecessary to Fight War on Terrorism

By Charles V. Peña
March 28, 2005

Executive Summary

President Bush signed a $417.5 billion defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2005 on August 5,2004. With the addition of an $82 billion supplemental for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in real terms U.S. military spending will be at a level exceeded only by that of the waning years of World War II and the height of the Korean War. The Defense Department had requested $401.7 billion, which was a 7 percent increase over the FY04 defense budget. The recently submitted FY06 Pentagon budget is $419.3 billion (notincluding funds for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan). The administration argues that increased military spending is a necessary part of the war on terrorism.

Those budgets assumed that the war on terrorism is primarily a military war to be fought by the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. The reality is that large conventional military operations will be the exception rather than the rule in the war on terrorism. Although President Bush claims Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, the truth is that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime did not eliminate an Al Qaeda sanctuary or a primary source of support for the terrorist group.

The military’s role in the war on terrorism will mainly involve special operations forces in discrete missions against specific targets, not conventional warfare aimed at overthrowing entire regimes. The rest of the war aimed at dismantling and degrading the Al Qaeda terrorist network will require unprecedented international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, not expensive new planes, helicopters, and warships.

Therefore, an increasingly large defense budget (DoD projects that the budget will grow to more than $487 billion by FY09) is not necessary to fight the war on terrorism. Nor is it necessary to protect America from traditional nation-state military threats—the United States is in a unique geostrategic position; it has no military rivals and is relatively secure from conventional military attack because of vast oceans on its flanks and friendly neighbors to the north and south.

In fact, U.S. security would be better served by adopting a less interventionist policy abroad and pulling back from the Cold War–era extended security perimeter, which necessitates forward-deployed military forces around the world. If the United States adopted a balancer-of-last-resort strategy (allowing other countries to manage the security of their own regions), most overseas U.S. military deployments could be eliminated and the defense budget could be substantially reduced.

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Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.