Republican Fail, Advantage Sanders: the Indefensible Budget for Defense

A Memo to Senator Bernard Sanders.

“…the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies or partners…”

–Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense, May 10, 2010

Senator Sanders, the extravagance of military spending today cannot be defended, and it reflects a corrupted political system. Great wealth is taxed away from the American people and transferred unjustly to a tiny cohort of wealthy and influential oligarchs—in the so-called military/industrial complex—while civil programs of much public benefit languish, starved for funds.

The excess is decoupled from any credible need. We spend more on defense than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Great Britain, India, and Germany combined—the next seven largest defense budgets. We account for 39% of all the military spending in the world. Our defense budget is almost three times larger than China’s and greater than Russia’s by a factor of seven.

Senator Sanders, exorbitant defense spending needs to play a far more prominent role in your campaign than it has so far, for two reasons: the country needs to know, understand, and condemn the practice, and the issue offers you a formidable political advantage.

In at least three ways the Republican Party bears much responsibility for the travesty. Since the Reagan years, “Keeping America Safe” has been their mindless litany as the Republicans perceive the need for defense spending as absolute, and the budget chronically inadequate no matter the level of threat. As the party of American business, the Republicans are not predisposed to criticize or even scrutinize the military/industrial complex. And the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush, trumped all his predecessors in defense spending. When he took office the defense budget was $335 billion. When he left it was $696 billion, an increase of 108%.

It is time to hold the Republican Party accountable, a task easily achieved with your preference for speaking truth to power. Exposing the exorbitance of defense spending will force the Republicans to justify their history of inflating it—and their stated intent to continue. In the glare of the facts a convincing defense is difficult to imagine: the issue will prove to be a political millstone of the first rank.

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The USS Harry S. Truman, flagship of Carrier Strike Group Ten.

What are some facts? What have we bought with the excessive military budgets?

A Carrier Strike Group in the American Navy is composed of about 7,500 officers and enlisted persons manning a dozen ships or so: an aircraft carrier with 60-75 aircraft aboard, one or more guided missile cruisers, two anti-submarine ships, two or more destroyers or frigates, and a varying number of submarines and supply ships.

The acquisition cost of the newest carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford CVN 78, topped $13.5 billion, and the ongoing cost of operating a Carrier Strike Group—the ships, aircraft, and personnel—is about $6.5 million per day.

The United States Navy has eleven Carrier Strike Groups. Each day we spend about $71.5 million to sustain them. $27 billion per year.

Great Britain has two carrier strike groups. India has two.

France has one. Spain has one. Italy has one. Brazil has one. Thailand has one. Russia has one. China has one.

Could we keep America safe with, say, just five or six Carrier Groups?

Or none at all? The aircraft carrier today is dinosaur weapon, as obsolete as the battleship. The combat function of a Carrier Strike Group is the delivery of explosives and ground-support firepower, but ballistic missiles and drones are enormously more cost-effective weapons for both missions and enormously less vulnerable targets. This is the compelling argument of a former naval aviator, Capt. Henry J. Hendrix, in a report, “At What Cost a Carrier?”, prepared for the Center for a New American Security.

On August 22, 2015, in Newport News, Virginia the keel was laid for the next Ford-class carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy CVN 79.

The carrier groups of the Navy are deployed all over the world. So are the other armed forces, with permanent Army posts and Air Force bases located in 63 countries. We maintain 737 overseas bases housing 255,000 men and women in uniform: 65,000 stationed in Europe, 80,000 in East Asia and Japan, 5,000 in North Africa, the rest scattered elsewhere. The recurring annual fixed cost of each base ranges from $50 million to $200 million, according to a RAND Corporation study; at bottom $36.85 billion per year. And stationing military personnel overseas is far more costly than it is at home: RAND says from $10,000 to $40,000 more per year, per person. Another $2.55 billion.

We spend at least $39.4 billion per year for a permanent showing of the flag around the world. That’s close to the entire defense budget of Germany, and $5 billion more than Italy’s. No other country finds a global military presence necessary for keeping its people safe.

The Republican presidential candidates cannot possibly justify the waste in the defense budget, yet they clamor for major increases. Here is what Governor Christie advocated during their recent debate: “No less than 500,000 active duty soldiers in the Army. No less than 185,000 active duty marines in the Marine Corps. Bring us to a 350 ship Navy again, and modernize the Ohio class of submarines, and bring our Air Force back to 2,600 aircraft that are ready to go.” None of Governor Christie’s opponents thought it prudent to question this. (For the record, the Navy today has 273 “Deployable Battle Force” ships, including the 100-plus vessels in the Carrier Strike Groups.)

Senator Sanders, the Republican party is in serious jeopardy of ridicule here.

But by their actions the Republicans have put the entire nation in jeopardy, in a vastly different and far more serious form.

History is littered with nation-states that sought military supremacy, spent beyond their means to achieve it, and collapsed in consequence. (The most recent example, arguably, is Russia.) Does our country fit this template?

A trio of recent Republican presidents pursued vigorously the first two elements, leaving us in sobering jeopardy of the third.

Campaigning for the presidency in 1980 Ronald Reagan promised to lower taxes, increase defense spending, and balance the budget. He fulfilled his first two promises in spectacular fashion, but nearly tripled our national debt in doing so. Inheriting a debt of $998 billion, President Reagan added to it a total of $1.859 trillion. During his eight years in office he transformed the world’s greatest creditor nation into the world’s greatest debtor. President George H.W. Bush, accelerating the pace, contributed another $1.554 trillion to the national debt, managing this in just a single term. George W. Bush outdid both, increasing the debt by $5.849 trillion, more than all previous presidents combined, all the way back to George Washington. Together these three Republican presidents account for $9.262 trillion of red ink, almost exactly half the total of outstanding debt incurred since the founding of the republic. (The national debt today stands at just over $18 trillion.) Their cumulative deficits have left the nation mired in mountainous debt, faced at home with mounting unmet needs in infrastructure, environmental, and social programs, and dangerously diminished competitively in the arena of international finance.

“Deficits don’t matter,” Republican Vice President Richard Cheney once famously asserted. They matter less when the national debt is held exclusively by domestic institutions, but ours is not. Fully a third, $6.175 trillion is held in foreign hands, $1.244 trillion by China alone. Creditors have power over debtors: we have sold a great deal of our sovereign autonomy. Deficits do matter.

Four years ago a highly placed government official corrected Mr. Cheney. He said, “…. I believe the single, biggest threat to our national security is our debt…” It was not some ultraliberal economist speaking: it was Admiral Mike Mullens, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

We need to heed the Admiral’s words.

National security can be breached by military means: bombs, missiles, naval bombardment, chemical and biological attacks, etc. The three Republican presidents recognized only this category of threat but never any other, as they inflated military spending. Admiral Mullens was more perceptive: a country can also be brought to its knees by financial dereliction and insurmountable debt.

Ask Russia. Or ask Greece today. Public goods and services there—education, health care, police and fire protection, housing and food subsidies, pensions—are being slashed, taxes are skyrocketing, and assets held in common privatized at fire sale prices as Greece’s creditors impose a harsh regime of austerity. Greek national security has been breached not by military means, but by external economic dictates every bit as devastating to the people.

Failing to admit debt as a threat to security, and fabulously enriching the military/industrial complex, the last three Republican presidents have created the preconditions for a Greek scenario to take place here—not immediately, hopefully not in the short term. But the need is unquestionable for a revolution in our ruinous defense spending. Republican defense policy—absolutist, scare-mongered, built on platitudes, ultimately stupid—cannot be survived in the longer term.

Senator Sanders, you should not hesitate to expose the contemporary details of wasteful defense spending; it is a political opportunity not to be missed, and there is information here an informed electorate needs to assimilate.

But statesmanship requires more than expose’ and criticism. You need also to suggest a better way forward, describing the contours of a responsible and rational defense policy—including the difficult choices and potential hazards involved. To do this, there is probably no better guide than the wisdom of the Republican president 55 years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

He was an earlier breed of Republican, vastly different from today’s variety. Eisenhower was a true statesman concerned for the well-being of the American people, not an agent for corporate interests or a billionaire’s lackey. Early in his Administration he spoke to the tradeoff between defense expenditures and the needs of people, in a speech decrying the tragic global military costs of the Cold War:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

(Remind today’s Republicans, Senator Sanders, of the opportunity cost of a Ford-class aircraft carrier: the annual salaries of about 290,000 teachers.)

President Eisenhower delivered this speech on April 16, 1953, just weeks into his Administration. As his time in office progressed, so did the flowering of the military/industrial complex.

Prior to World War II America had no standing armaments industry with a vested interest in the military budget. Soon after Pearl Harbor our consumer-product companies could and did retool for war production, and the Ford Motor Company, for example, built battle tanks and airplanes. After the war, Ford resumed its car business, but then other companies emerged devoted exclusively to killing people and breaking things—to use Governor Huckabee’s sordid choice of words. The seemingly permanent Cold War called an arms industry into being.

During his years in office, President Eisenhower was aware of this development, and in his farewell address in 1961 he expressed his grave concern:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development [the Cold War]. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.

But we did.

The arms industry consolidated through mergers and acquisitions as anti-trust laws were less vigorously enforced and finally ignored, and insinuated itself into every state of the union. Fewer and larger megacorporations, with facilities or subcontractors dispersed nationwide, dangled irresistible plums—jobs and incomes—in front of nearly every state and congressional district. Few Senators or Representatives, consequently, could resist supporting defense budgets, and few did.

Then with its Citizens United decision the Supreme Court gave the arms industry—and the rest of corporate America—a purchase order to buy the federal government, and the military/industrial complex now has a hammerlock on the defense budget. The keel for the USS John F. Kennedy CVN 79 has been laid…

Failing to heed the classic admonition of eternal vigilance, our liberties and democratic processes today are moribund. We have sunk from the robust democracy of the Eisenhower years to the inequalities and injustices of oligarchy.

Through all the intervening decades, no presidential candidate in either party has seen the decline with sufficient clarity to worry about it nor had the courage to challenge it—until now. The mantle has fallen on your shoulders, Senator Sanders.

Sixty years of political neglect will not be overcome by a single presidency. You have warned us about that. The restoration of democracy will require an enlightened public, dedicated and sustained leadership beholden to no one, and probably decades of time.

It will be an extended revolution, then, but the opportunity is at hand for a substantive and clamorous beginning: a frontal attack on the military/industrial complex and the defense budget that cannot be defended.

You will find some Republican support in launching this–Republicans who are thoughtful, aware, and patriotic in the way Dwight Eisenhower was, and there are some. Here’s the thinking of one such citizen, Mr. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense in both the Bush and Obama Administrations. Speaking on May 10, 2010, he said, Does the number of warships we have or are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies or partners? Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?

Senator Sanders, your unhedged call for revolution is timely. Its success is mandatory.

Richard W. Behan lives and writes in Corvallis, Oregon. A retired professor of public policy, he can be reached at rwbehan@comcast.net

Richard W. Behan lives in Corvallis, Oregon. He can be reached at: rwbehan@comcast.net.