President Clinton used the line-item veto on a spending bill for the first time recently, scratching out a few specific items from two military appropriations bills. His veto of 38 military spending projects worth $287 million in the military construction appropriation was a commendable step toward removing unneeded pork from the military budget. But Clinton’s choices only scratch the surface. The 38 vetoed projects were only 26 percent of the 145 projects added to the budget by Congress but never requested by the president. The congressional uproar over that modest line-item veto caused the president to be more timid on the much larger $248 billion defense appropriation. Of the roughly 750 projects worth about $4 billion that Congress added to the president’s budget request, he vetoed a mere 13 projects worth only $144 million.
Among the projects left untouched were three extra F-16 fighters, eight extra C-130J military transport planes, one extra DDG-51 destroyer and two V-22 Osprey tiltrotor transport aircraft. The F-16s are produced in Texas, home of House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom Delay. The C-130Js are produced in Georgia, home of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The extra DDG-51 is produced in Mississippi, home of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
But congressional pork is only part of the picture. Executive branch pork is really big money. Some seem to believe that if an item is in the president’s yearly budget request, it’s not pork, but that’s hardly the case.
The amount now being spent on defense is roughly what was spent in the late 1970s during the Cold War, about $1,000 per year for every American.
There’s not much point in quibbling over whether to buy an extra DDG-51 or V-22 this year. The real question is why they’re being produced at all. The DDG-51 was originally designed to provide air defense for aircraft carrier battle groups during the Cold War, when there was a severe threat from Soviet planes. Those expensive ships are ill-suited to post-Cold War missions but are still being produced even at a time when a surplus of ships is forcing the Navy to retire other perfectly good vessels before their useful lives are over. The V-22 is an expensive aircraft that is designed to deliver Marines from their ships to shore during an amphibious assault. Its mission could be performed by a helicopter that is half as expensive. The Bush administration attempted to cancel the plane, but the Clinton administration and Congress have embraced it. Canceling production of the remaining DDG-51s and V-22s would save about $60 billion and $80 billion, respectively, in future development, procurement and operating costs.
Some weapons still being developed are equally unnecessary. Despite the lessened tensions in the post-Cold War world, the armed services are planning three new tactical aircraft programs, two of which are in development. The F-22, a high-performance aircraft designed during the Cold War to combat the fighters of the Soviet Union, no longer has a sophisticated air threat to counter. The U.S. Air Force will dominate future air-to-air combat with or without the F-22.
The second tactical aircraft in development is the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a future replacement for less sophisticated Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft. But the F-18E/F, the third new tactical aircraft, is already in production and could serve quite well as the replacement for older Air Force and Navy aircraft. In a post-Cold War world, the Navy can provide air support to Marine Corps ground forces, eliminating the need for Marines to buy a new aircraft. Canceling the F-22 and JSF programs would save about $70 billion and $200 billion, respectively, in future development, procurement and operating costs.
Isn’t it time that we cut those unneeded big-ticket items from the defense budget? Defense hawks complain that defense spending has fallen to a little more than 3 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. But that figure represents only how much of the economy’s productive capacity is used up by defense spending. The magnitude of defense spending is better measured by comparing the absolute level of the defense budget with the threat the U.S. faces. The amount now being spent on defense is roughly what was spent in the late 1970s during the Cold War, about $1,000 per year for every American.
Yet, in the post-Cold War world, the threat we face is dramatically less severe. Hawks will say that the world remains a dangerous place. But there has always been some danger in the world, and the eclipse of the Soviet Union removed the only credible threat to the vital interests of the United States. Furthermore, no other nation spends even close to the amount the United States does on defense. The United States spends more than all of its allies — some of whom are the next most potent military powers in the world — combined. At most, the Russians and Chinese each spend $70 billion to $80 billion per year, but the total could be much less. Most of that money goes to holding creaking, bloated militaries together instead of to development and production of new weapons. Moreover, combined military spending by the world’s most unfriendly nations — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba and North Korea — totals a paltry $15 billion per year.
The bone-crushing superiority of the U.S. military in the modern world is clear-cut and not about to change. There’s simply no excuse for not putting the Pentagon on a low-fat diet.