Military Spending Fight: How the U.S. Can Safely Cut its Defense Budget

For a nation that spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined, defense cuts are a surprisingly thorny issue. This is especially true during an election cycle, where political optics tend to overshadow practical and needed debate. With automatic defense cuts looming for the 2013 fiscal year (FY) as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act, and the general need to rein in government spending across the board, the debate over whether or not the U.S. should (or can) reduce its military spending is heating up.

As a percentage of GDP, defense spending in the U.S. is lower than it was during the Cold War, currently sitting at around 3.5% (versus over 5% during the Reagan administration). In real dollars, however, the U.S. government spends over a half a trillion dollars per year on its defense, not counting what it spends for ‘overseas contingency operations’ like the war in Afghanistan. As these contingency operations wind down, so too does the overall defense budget. In 2011, the U.S. spent a total (including contingency operations) of $687 billion, with the base budget sitting at $528.2 billion. The proposed budget for FY 2013 is $613.9 billion total, with a $525.4 billion base – a reduction of some $5.2 billion from 2012's $530.6 billion base. If the planned defense cuts are enacted, the defense budget will be reduced by more than $500 billion over 10 years. These reductions would come by cutting tens of thousands of troops, reducing the fleet of warplanes, and slowing the rate of shipbuilding. So what’s all the fuss?

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney wants to raise defense spending to a platform of 4% of GDP, which would raise the budget to between $2.1 and $2.3 trillion (yes, trillion) within a decade, depending on how gradually the increase is implemented. Current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said “You can’t take a half a trillion dollars out of the defense budget and not incur additional risks.” And this drives to the heart of the debate: what (or who) are the risks and threats facing America, what will it take to ‘defeat’ them, and what role does the U.S. see its forces playing in the world throughout the 21st century. It’s only after answering these basic questions that you can then decide if the defense budget should be cut and by how much.

On his official website, Romney argues that the U.S. forces are “in serious need of modernization,” as we are currently relying on weapons platforms designed 40 to 50 years ago. Adding to the aging of America’s arsenal is a reduction to their overall numbers, with the U.S. Navy fielding fewer ships and the Air Force fewer planes. Even taking the increased technological capabilities of today’s platforms into account, some argue the U.S. is still under-equipped to meet its objectives and obligations. For example, Romney points out that U.S. naval planners suggest the Navy will need 328 ships to fulfil its role of global presence and power projection, whereas it currently only has 284 in service. “The dangers to our security are mounting,” Romney’s site ominously warns.  “There is a price to strength, but a greater price to weakness, because weakness temps aggression.”  This is certainly true, and maintaining military preponderance has been the cornerstone of every National Security Strategy (NSS) since the end of the Cold War. But what price is too high?  Defeating another state in a conventional war is still the primary purpose and design of the military, which begs the question: what nation, or nations, is in a position to challenge the U.S. military in a head-on, conventional war? The answer is: none. While countries like China work to modernize their militaries in an attempt to close the gap with the U.S., focusing on asymmetrical capabilities like cyber warfare and ‘denial of access’ via advanced missile technology, the fact of the matter is no nation is in a position to pose a credible threat (that is, existential) to the U.S. So why the need to spend more than $600 billion a year when all other states spend a fraction of that?

The first and most obvious answer is politics. Reducing military spending is politically risky.  Budget cuts mean people lose jobs, and in today’s economy, being a politician responsible for layoffs, whether in your district or another, tends to make you unpopular at the polls – fiscal responsibility be damned. There are also the optics: voting in favor of cutting the defense budget must mean you are against the troops and want to deprive them of the tools they need to do the nation's dirty work overseas. Less defense must mean you are in favor of promoting weakness; voting in favor of increases means you’re strong and powerful. It’s easy to see how quickly defense cuts become fodder for political battles.

The other answer is signalling. For all the talk of American decline, the fact remains the U.S. is still the most powerful and capable nation in the world, and the institutions and rules that govern international relations largely reflect its interests. It is the only nation with a global military capability and presence. Maintaining a military posture, which includes defense spending, let’s the world know America is not going anywhere and remains capable and committed to meeting its myriad global obligations. This is reflected, for instance, in the 2011 ‘Pacific Pivot’ which sees the U.S. increasing its military presence in Southeast Asia (and the wider region) in a bid to reassure states like the Philippines against fears of a rising China. At every visit of a top U.S. official to the region, be it Robert Gates in Singapore or President Obama in Australia, the message has been clear: pending budget cuts would not come at the expense of America’s role in the Pacific. 

America’s role as a truly global nation with global military commitments (alliances, security guarantees, etc.) must be taken into account when considering the extent of its budget. No other nation spends as much because no other nation has the same extent of commitments. Moreover, America’s allies (NATO, etc.) benefit from the country’s greater capabilities and spending, and so are able to get away with spending less. This in turn creates a situation where increased capability creates increased need. While France and Britain were the chief architects and promoters of the campaign in Libya, it was impossible for them to execute without America’s high-tech gadgetry and advanced capability.

With all these things taken as a whole – domestic political considerations and sensitivities, foreign policy objectives, and global defense commitments – America’s defense budget can still safely be reduced by a healthy margin without jeopardizing the country's overall objective of maintaining military primacy. Part of this comes by reforming defense contracting and improving the general efficiency in the Pentagon. This is something both Obama and Romney acknowledge in their proposed defense policies. It also comes from making strategic choices in what aging platforms are replaced with: as fellow Pundit Georgi Ivanov notes, the most high-tech piece of equipment may not be the best. But before a real reduction can be made, a cohesive sense of direction and purpose for the U.S. must be articulated and defined: what is the overarching goal and role for the U.S. in the 21st century and what are the most likely threats?

It is also important for the politics to adapt to reality. If Congress is serious about balancing the budget, every aspect of spending must be on the table, including its largest programs like defense.  Advocating for a reduction in military spending does not make you less patriotic or weak. In today’s political climate, where ‘austerity’ is the word of the day, reassessing priorities is essential.  Does the U.S. want to be a nation that cuts education funding while refusing to even consider reducing defense spending? It is the classic ‘guns vs. Butter’ problem known to states throughout history and Congress will have to work this out if this is truly to be another 'American' century.