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The deal struck this week by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray has been well received by President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, the defense industry, and many people in the media and the public at large who are tired of Washington’s budgetary gridlock. No one is popping any champagne corks, but there is a widespread feeling that any agreement that can eliminate the uncertainty that has dominated Washington budgetary debates over the past two years is worth supporting.
But the Ryan/Murray deal can be improved. The Congress and the president should rethink the need to give the Pentagon over $20 billion more in fiscal 2014. More than enough money is available under the budgetary caps established in current law to provide a robust and forward-looking defense of the United States without this proposed increase. At roughly $480 billion for the Pentagon budget proper — and nearly $500 billion when nuclear weapons spending at the Department of Energy is factored in — current plans are already about $100 billion per year higher than the Cold War average.
One could argue that we live in a vastly different world than we did during the Cold War, and that there is no reason that we should be spending a similar amount now as we did then. This is absolutely true. The world is considerably safer than it was when the U.S. was faced off against a superpower adversary that had the capability to end life as we know it, and Pentagon spending should reflect that fact.
If anything, traditional military challenges to the United States have been diminishing in the last few years. The Iraq war is over, and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. There is a good chance that Iran’s nuclear weapons program will be stopped through negotiations, not force. Al Qaeda is on the wane, and no foreign terrorist group has been able to launch a significant attack on U.S. soil for over a decade. There are still serious security challenges out there, to be sure, but if we can’t address them with a budget of nearly half a trillion dollars per year there is something seriously wrong with the way we are utilizing our resources.
What are the most important threats on the horizon? Any list must include cyber-attacks; home-grown or “copy cat” terrorism carried out without significant logistical or financial support from any organization or network; “loose” nuclear weapons or bomb-making material in Russia, Pakistan, or heaven forbid, Saudi Arabia (reportedly eager to lay claim to weapons now in Pakistan); and a miscalculation in the tussle between China and the U.S. and its allies in Asia over borders and the resources contained within them. None of the aforementioned challenges will be solved via traditional instruments of military power. The lack of a military solution is even more evident in the case of more generalized threats to human life and livelihood like climate change and epidemics of disease.
President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are not unmindful of these shifts, but they have yet to fully act on their implications. One set of proposals that seeks to bridge the gap between preparing for current versus future threats is a report on “strategic agility” put forward by a task force of defense analysts, retired military officers and former defense industry executives organized by the Stimson Center. In its own words, the task force’s approach would “seek to avoid involvement in protracted ground conflicts, reform the way the DoD compensates and utilizes personnel, and reduce expenditure on weapons that provide only marginal improvements in capability.” It highlights diplomacy as the preferred means of settling conflicts, but notes that the current State Department operating budget is just 3 percent of the Pentagon’s.
Specific actions recommended in the Stimson report include cutting the headquarters of the Pentagon and the military services by 20 per cent, reducing the Army to 450,000 active duty troops, slowing down purchases of the F-35 combat aircraft, and downsizing the ballistic missile submarine force from 12 to 10 boats. These four steps alone would save $25 billion annually, more than the Ryan/Murray plan proposes to add to the Pentagon budget for 2014.
The Stimson approach offers just one illustration of how Pentagon spending can be reduced while creating a military more appropriate to near- and medium-term threats.. Douglas Macgregor has proposed restructuring the Army and Marines so that they are constituted of autonomous “plug and play” modules that can provide more combat capability at lower overall troop levels. And long-time defense journalist and analyst Tom Ricks of the New America Foundation has called for shrinking the military in order to make it easier for it to “adapt to the events of tomorrow.”
Throwing an extra $20 billion at the Pentagon now may just postpone a necessary rethinking of how we structure our armed forces and what we expect of them in a world where traditional approaches no longer work. Congress should reconsider this part of the Ryan/Murray deal and keep the Pentagon under the caps set out in current law.
William D. Hartung is director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.