The Military Budget: Thinking the Unthinkable

    Back in the Cold War days military planners were forced to “think the unthinkable” – produce dispassionate studies of various nuclear war scenarios. Here’s hoping that they’ve turned their talents to looking at the defense budget.    

    The baseline: The military budget is now about $700 billion per year; 20% of federal spending; almost 5% of GDP. Taking out the Afghan and Iraq wars it is about $550 billion – slightly less in inflation adjusted terms than it was in the 80s when we were facing down the Soviet Union, China, and their global allies.  We are the world’s policeman, protecting Europe, the flow of oil from the Middle East, our allies in the Far East, and our borders. Well, maybe not so much our borders.

    The problem: We’re broke. Republican instincts would protect military budgets and hold taxes steady;  Democratic instincts would protect entitlements and raise taxes. So, this year’s battles have been fought over the 35% of spending that is “discretionary”; or actually the 15% of the “discretionary” that is non-military. Yet we’ve got trillion dollar deficits. The Republican Ryan budget proposes a minimal defense reduction (beyond the wars); the Obama twelve year proposal is $400 billion; if the Deficit Reduction Committee can’t resolve its differences there will be an additional automatic $600 billion. Mind boggling.

    The options: When facing big cuts it is often better to eliminate broad swaths instead of chiselling away to the point that nothing is workable. Beyond the wars, what is available?  For example, the Air Force budget includes $11 billion for 35 more Stealth fighters; the Navy budget includes $4 billion for two more nuclear submarines and a $1 billion down-payment on an additional aircraft carrier; the nuclear program projects $100 billion over the next decade to improve our 1550 long range nuclear weapons.  The New York Times and Obama will probably get their way with significant reductions in the health-care and pensions of military families and retirees. (Labor costs are about 25% of the military budget.)   

    A vignette: By chance I attended a class reunion at the Air Force Academy this past weekend and had a chance to reflect. The school has a top rated academic program, particularly in engineering; they field 27 intercollegiate athletic teams and offer a robust intramural program; they have done a good job integrating women into the cadet corps. Since my graduation in the pre-Cambrian age the corps has increased from 2500 to 4400; a light aircraft flight program has been added, as has a drone program; world class track, field house, and indoor athletic training facilities have been added. (Some with private contributions.)  Planning is underway for a stunning Leadership Center. In good times each Superintendant has been able to build upon the edifice of their predecessor. In the Ryan “nip and tuck” scenario there may be no more buildings and maybe the football team will not stay at an off site hotel for home football games. In the Obama scenario the student body might revert to 2500. In the Armageddon scenario somebody will ask why we spend $300,000 on each cadet’s education rather than consolidating the military academies or relying on ROTC.

    It is not possible to achieve national fiscal sanity without significant cuts in military budgets – IMHO.  Robert Gates did a decent job restraining expensive weapons systems and Leon Paneta’s understanding of Congress indicates that he might as well, but these are the preliminaries. One would hope that the next administration will have a clear foreign policy, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our adversaries, and preserve just the forces necessary to achieve our national security objectives. The selection of a Secretary of Defense will be as important as the Treasury Secretary.


   This video of Mitt Romney on MSNBC’s Morning Joe provides a glimpse of what a general election campaign would look like.