Defense budget cuts are likely as sequestration rounds the bend. For many libertarians and liberals, this is not only inevitable, but also something to be embraced. Almost half of the sequestration cuts target the Department of Defense, and most of the conversation so far has concentrated on "Pentagon bloat." Even some employees of the Department of Defense have gotten on board.
These voices aren’t necessarily wrong, but the way that they frame their arguments regarding defense spending is profoundly misguided.
Pro-DoD-cut arguments usually run something like this: America spends more on defense than the next twenty countries combined. Those countries are still well behind the United States when it comes to military strength, and none of them could ever hope to match American military power in a conventional war. Therefore, we can afford to cut back a little bit.
This view greatly misunderstands the goals of defense spending. Here are a few facts which the debate over budget cuts ignores, but which need to be brought to the table.
1. The Department of Defense budget probably pays for itself:
The National Science Foundation gives out around $7 billion each year; the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health give out around $30 billion each; the U.S. Department of Defense gives a grand total of $80 billion to research and development. Furthermore, the Department of Defense’s spending in this area tends to be more effective than the spending of any of the previously mentioned institutions. While some of its spending and investments are political, it probably would not make a $535 million grant to a company like this. Its primary focus is on solving real-world problems. For evidence of this, Exhibit A would be the internet; Exhibit B would be GPS; and Exhibit C would be modern prosthesis. That only scratches the surface.
2. The Department of Defense provides work for millions of otherwise low-income Americans:
Given that progressive politicians use this argument to justify the existence of most welfare programs, there is no reason why it should not apply to the Department of Defense’s budget. While the average soldier is not from a low-income background, there are many thousands who are. Considering that the average age in the military is less than 30, policymakers should also take into account that many DoD personnel would be unemployed if they were not working in the military.
The modern military is far removed from the Marine Corps of R. Lee Ermey, but it is still fairly effective when it comes to making sure that people show up on time, maintain their health, learn a variety of technical skills, and do their job. Like most government organizations, it isn’t perfect, but it probably does a better job of educating young people and making productive workers than the average American high school or college — even though few people question whether spending on either of these institutions is wise investment.
3. The purpose of defense spending isn't to match the spending of other countries — it's to provide security:
Today, a box knife costs about $4.90, but a couple of those were enough for terrorists to take control of four airplanes which dealt a devastating blow to America’s infrastructure. This is not the only thing that organizations like Al-Qaeda are likely to try. Osama Bin Laden expressed interest in obtaining a nuclear weapon, and if he had one, he would probably use it. Countering that sort of activity requires much more than matching funds.
To understand why, consider an analogy at the individual level: If you found out that Norman Bates was after you with a kitchen knife, you probably wouldn’t feel secure by going to the local K-Mart and buying your own kitchen knife. You would probably buy a gun and set up a $10,000 security system around your house. Being a threat is far cheaper than being secure from one. Terrorist organizations have absolutely no problem with targeting civilians, which means that defense has much more to protect than if a country were it to get involved in a conflict with another nation-state over the Senkaku Islands.
None of the points mentioned above mean that the military should avoid a debate on how it can spend its money more effectively in the future. For example, it might need more drone pilots and fewer tank drivers. Recent cyber-attacks from China suggest that the military needs more specialists capable of defending America’s infrastructure as well as its infrastructure. But before making any decisions about what should or should not be cut, politicians in Washington need to take into consideration what real security means.