A few weeks ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that further cuts to the defense budget beyond those included in the original debt deal would do severe damage to the U.S. military.
I disagree. In fact, I've long thought that cutting military spending would be one of the easiest ways out of our current fiscal situation.
I think some perspective is needed. Panetta is lamenting the nearly $500 billion in cuts to the defense budget that would result from the automatic triggers in the debt deal. Is this number large or not? Not particularly. The current level of funding for the military (excluding payments to veterans and money for wars) is $530 billion, and if the spending triggers went into effect, then the 2013 budget would be reduced to about $472 billion. This level of cuts would return the budget to its 2007 levels, and no one seems to have thought that our spending in that year left our country vulnerable. And keep in mind, if 2007 spending levels were acceptable for a world where other countries had not cut back due to the financial crisis, than 2007 levels leave us safer, if the measure of safety is just U.S. spending compared to our rivals' expenditures.
But forget all those numbers. Maybe you think that given the threats we face, we need more spending than ever. Again, I disagree for two reasons, one being the tradeoff between softpower and hardpower and the other being the credibility of American threats of force.
Money that goes to the military is money that cannot go somewhere else, including spending on education, public health, and diplomacy. You might wonder how spending on these “domestic” issues could ever appreciably increase our security, but they all do, and not only do they do it for pennies on each defense dollar, but each dollar spent on these areas makes us smarter, healthier, and more well-liked, not just safer.
For example, defense analysts have long been pointing out the security benefits of having a populace that is educated in math and science — we can build better weapons and operate and maintain them better as well. As a side benefit of better science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, our citizens would know more about science. As for public health, a more fit populace has more eligible service members, and finally, diplomacy has a role to play in getting the U.S. access to bases, intelligence, and allies for reconstructing the countries it flattens. Not cutting the defense budget exposes improvements like these to the chopping block of the super committee or the automatic cuts.
The second reason for cutting military spending is credibility. As I said before, the base budget for 2011 is about $530 billion, but that does not include the nearly $160 billion that the U.S. paid for operations overseas. If we reduced the size of the military at its baseline (by cutting into the $530 billion) then this gives us more flexibility to spend more when the situation demands. If we stretch ourselves financially by paying for troops and weapon systems that we don't need, then we may be harder pressed to mobilize the funding needed to actually send troops and materiel into harm's way. Threats to ramp up our spending for a crisis area aren't very credible if we are already spending to the hilt.
Now, I admit that I don't know of any evidence that says credibility and willingness to use force is more important than the absolute amount of force we can bring to bear, but since the U.S. dominates the world in military spending under any budget scenario under consideration, I can only assume that our willingness to act plays a more important role in our global deterrent posture. Also, criminologists can provide some indirect evidence for what I'm arguing; some have noted that deterring crime is a matter of the certainty of the punishment and not its severity.
When you're hungry, the first hamburger you eat tastes great, but the second is not so satisfying and the one after that even less so. Defense spending follows the same pattern. Perhaps the U.S. is getting a lot of safety for the first half-trillion dollars it spends on defense, but each additional dollar brings less and less safety, especially compared to what those dollars could do for cash-strapped educators, innovators, and ordinary citizens. The super committee should just cut defense and call it a day.
Photo Credit: an honorable german