Strategy, Not Politics, Must Dictate Spending

There are a myriad of solutions being tossed around by politicians and pundits attempting to reign in the U.S. national debt. Whatever the final answer ends up being and whenever it is realized, a compromise of spending cuts and tax increases will be a part of that solution. Although military spending is an easy and, to be honest, obvious target — especially considering it currently constitutes roughly 20% of federal spending — advocating for deep cuts without taking U.S. military capabilities, commitments, and complexities into account threatens to pull the rug out from under the Defense Department when serious reform is required. 

A strong military has afforded the U.S. the ability to not only defend itself against terrorism for the past decade, but also to assist in humanitarian aid missions and maintain a show of force in around the globe. A strong and well-funded defense apparatus has, for better or worse, allowed us to wage campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Carrier battle groups, (CVBGs), Marine expeditionary units (MEUs), and nuclear-powered submarines are at the ready 24 hours-a-day to respond to any crisis in the world. The types of drastic spending cuts that are currently on the table have the potential to limit the capabilities of our military power; to what degree will be determined by our success in redefining what “national security” means after a decade of the “war on terror” and two decades after the end of the Cold War. With the Bush Doctrine proving too expensive — both in blood and treasure — and right-to-protect relying on international cooperation (from allies suffering from years of military austerity under the assumption of American military protection) and receiving mixed reviews domestically, U.S. national security policy needs to be solidified — identifying realistic goals free from the sort of Bush-era rhetoric that put American pride before strategic pragmatism and the Romney military ideal of "bigger is better." 

Cuts in military spending should be based on new approaches to evolving national security policy, not on political convenience or a narrow-sighted approach to reducing federal expenditures. Considering the nature of our current military involvement in the Middle East, assets such the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Predator drones, and other covert or clandestine operations are key to our goals in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other key areas of operation; we cannot afford to defund or cancel these programs. Likewise, it is important to consider, when debating cuts in military spending, that 34% of DoD’s annual base budget is comprised of personnel costs, including salaries and health and retirement benefits. If politicians are looking to use the Pentagon as a means of making the kind of federal spending cuts Tea Partiers ramble for on their signs and the reduced emphasis on military spending that Occupy Wall Streeters beat their drums for, they should be prepared to face the discontent of millions of American servicemen and women who have already sacrificed enough for their country.  

That is not to say, however, that there is not fat to be trimmed. One example is the F-22 Raptor, a stealth fourth-generation fighter conceived during the Cold War, developed during the 1990s, and entered into service in 2005. The Raptor possesses capabilities that extend far beyond those of any other aircraft in the world, and that’s excluding classified performance specs. The problem with the Raptor is that it hasn’t flown a combat sortie in its six years in service. For every hour the F-22 spends in flight, it requires 30 hours of maintenance at a cost of $44,000 an hour. Each F-22 has a fly-away cost (not including R&D) of $142.6 million, with a planned Raptor fleet numbering 187 aircraft. The entire program has a price-tag of $66.7 billion, but has yet to make a meaningful and unique contribution to American security, especially considering that competing fifth-generation fighters being produced by China and Russia are currently much farther behind in development and that Boeing has a viable — and far cheaper — alternative to the F-22.

There are many other examples — from our superfluous nuclear arsenal and missile defense shields that will never work, to unnecessary extra engines for the F-35 and contractors overcharging for equipment — that evidence how military expenditures could, and should, be reformed. And I don’t think anyone could argue against DoD trying to find more efficient ways to spend its funding and discard programs that aren’t producing a meaningful return on investment. But to emphasize a certain dollar amount without taking into consideration the consequences could be disasterous. Because of our post-WWII legacy of predominant military strength, the Pentagon has obligations to meet, not just to U.S. citizens, but to other countries to whom we are beholden to defend (South Korea) and coalitions in which we play an instrumental role (NATO). We cannot afford to cut defense spending under the guise of a quick-fix to our ever-mounting debt.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Doug Scott

Doug Scott lives and works in Arlington, VA.

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