A Disciplined Defense

How to Regain Strategic Solvency

A U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jet flies over the U.S. Air Force Base on Okinawa, May 30, 2009.
A U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jet flies over the U.S. Air Force Base on Okinawa, May 30, 2009. (Yuriko Nakao / Courtesy Reuters)

If Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in the Pentagon's budgeting office 20 years ago and awoke today, his first reaction would be that nothing had changed. President George W. Bush has asked for $505 billion for the peacetime U.S. military establishment in 2008 -- almost exactly the amount, in real dollars, that President Ronald Reagan sought in 1988. Rip would start scratching his head, however, when he discovered that the Soviet empire and the Soviet Union itself had imploded more than 15 years ago and that Washington now spends almost as much on its military power as the rest of the world combined and five times more than all its potential enemies together. Told that Pentagon planners were nonetheless worried about overstretch and presidential candidates were vying to pledge even higher budgets and even larger forces, Rip's head might just explode.

The current strains on resources and forces are due, of course, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the costs of those wars are not included in the half-trillion-dollar "baseline" figure noted above. A supplemental request for an extra $142 billion covers them, bringing the total 2008 military budget request to a whopping $647 billion -- a budget more than 25 percent larger, in real terms, than the one for 1968, at the height of combat in Vietnam, a bigger and bloodier conflict than any the United States has seen since. And even that total figure does not include the $46 billion budget of the Department of Homeland Security, whose functions would be handled by the Defense Ministry in many other countries.

How would one answer Rip's inevitable questions about what is going on? One might note that everything costs more these days. And one might argue that even so, military spending takes up less of GDP today than it did during the Cold War -- 4.2 percent today compared with 5.8 percent in 1988 and 9.4 percent in 1968. But when pressed, one would have to concede that Washington spends so much and yet feels so insecure because U.S. policymakers have lost the ability to think clearly about defense policy.

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