Admiral Mullen and the Defense Budget

Like many other advocates of more Pentagon spending, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, recently told the press that the nation needs to increase US defense spending from 3.3 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product to 4.0 percent. An increase of 0.7 percent should not be much. Why should that be any problem, especially if, as he and many others say, we spent much more during the Cold War, such as the 8.9 percent we spent in 1968 during the Johnson Administration.

Let’s do the math.

The latest data from the Treasury Department shows the Gross Domestic Product, the approximate size of the US economy, to be $13.4 trillion. If we increase the Pentagon’s “share” of it from 3.3 to 4.0 percent, that 0.7 percent increase calculates to $94 billion: not exactly chicken feed.

Next, we should put the Admiral’s recommendation into context.

Even though the percent of the Gross Domestic Product that we spend on defense has gone down since the Cold War, the dollar amount we spend on defense has been going up, not down. Actually, we spend more on defense now than we did at any time since the end of World War II; that’s in inflation adjusted dollars, and it’s according to the Pentagon’s own official budget data in something called “National Defense Budget Estimates” for 2008. According to this volume, the previous highest point in post-World War II Pentagon spending was 1952 – during the Korean War – at $588.6 billion in today’s dollars. President George W. Bush’s Pentagon spending request for the new fiscal year, 2008, is above $660 billion.

Despite the increase in actual dollars, the percent of Gross Domestic Product for defense has gone down because the economy has grown even faster than defense spending; thus, the ratio of the two has changed downward.

Furthermore, the admiral’s argument seems to imply the dollars to expand defense spending are easy to find. In a sense, he’s right; you only have to do one of three things: 1) increase taxes; 2) cut other federal spending, or 3) increase the federal deficit. Admiral Mullen forgot to tell us which he preferred, or whether he wanted all three.

Also, consider that at its current level, the Pentagon’s budget is larger than the rest of the world – combined. According to the CIA’s 2007 Word Fact Book, the rest of the world spent a little under $400 billion in 2006 on defense. That amount is for not just our potential opponents, whoever they might be; that’s the entire rest of the world.

Did I mention that the Cold War is over; that we no longer have anywhere a superpower opponent with a military budget that even approaches peer status with the US? For those who point to China and Russia as justification for higher Pentagon spending, consider their defense budgets estimated at an inconsequential $81 and a puny $21 billion, respectively, by the CIA.

Admiral Mullen didn’t make that absence of a serious competitor a part of his argument to increase Department of Defense spending, either.

There are a few other things he forgot to mention.

He’s choosing the wrong numerator. He talks about increasing just the Pentagon’s “baseline” budget. That’s the part that pays for peacetime expenses, approximately $470 billion in 2008. His calculation excludes funds to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For 2008, the President’s request for that is for $192 billion. Mullen’s “oversight” is not inconsequential. When he compares today’s spending to the past in terms of GDP, the previous years’ data includes the spending for past conflicts, such as Korea, Vietnam, and the 1991 Gulf War. If the admiral were to perform an apples to apples calculation (i.e. one that included war spending to compare to the past), he would find that we’re now spending just under 5 percent of GDP on defense. (And, that’s not including nuclear weapons costs in the Department of Energy, Homeland Security spending, and a lot else that is defense related in the generic sense.)

Congratulations, Admiral; we’ve hit and surpassed your target – were you to perform an evenhanded calculation.

Finally, it is important to pay attention to what Admiral Mullen says he wants to spend his extra money on. He says he wants it to “recapitalize” our weapons inventory. He wants to modernize equipment totally unrelated to the wars, such as buying F-22s, which have yet to appear in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan for a single sortie (and couldn’t do much that is useful if they did). He also says he wants to replace much of the equipment worn out in the wars, sometimes to simply repair or replace the equipment with essentially the same item; sometimes to buy the next generation of hardware, instead, to propel modernization. In other words, Admiral Mullen doesn’t want an extra $94 billion – each year – to augment the Pentagon’s baseline budget; he wants it to augment the Pentagon’s hardware purchasing budget.

We’ve seen it many times before: the Pentagon can’t find enough money to buy the hardware it wants. Even though its procurement budget is climbing, costs per unit have grown so much faster that far more money is needed to replace the existing inventory on a one for one basis. Typically, the generals and admirals get the additional money they ask for, but meanwhile the unit cost of hardware will have kept right on growing. The result: a larger hardware budget results in a smaller inventory – which by the way is also older, on average, and less well supplied with spare parts, maintenance, and trained crews. Spent as it has been in the past, Admiral Mullen’s $94 billion will result in making these trends worse.

The only thing that is different in Admiral Mullen’s plea for more money is the tortured rationale. He wants us to think that his hardware budget should mirror the economy. Put another way, every time a new McDonald’s opens up somewhere in the US, Admiral Mullen wants the taxpayers to give him a few billion dollars more.

Elephants are the largest land-animals on earth, but they are small compared to an extinct dinosaur, such as a Brontosaurus. Admiral Mullen thinks this proves elephants are too small.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues.



Winslow T. Wheeler worked for 31 years on Capitol Hill for both Republican and Democratic Senators and for the Government Accountability Office on national security and program evaluation issues. When he left Capitol Hill he worked at the Center for Defense Information and the Project On Government Oversight for thirteen years altogether.