Dollars and Sense on Defense

by David J. Trachtenberg

As expected, the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, co-chaired by former Democratic White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, was unable to achieve a consensus on a series of proposals for slashing the burgeoning budget deficit and reducing the country’s debt.  Part of the Bowles-Simpson recommendations call for significant defense cuts in an effort to rein in overall discretionary spending.  They proposed Pentagon cuts totaling $100 billion by 2015 to create “a leaner, more efficient Defense Department.”

Despite falling several votes shy of the minimum necessary to place the Commission’s recommendations before Congress, the Bowles-Simpson effort has provided a cloak of bipartisan respectability to those who favor greater Pentagon budget austerity.  Another group, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force, co-chaired by Alice Rivlin, former director of President Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget, and former Republican Senator Pete Domenici, has argued for a freeze on military spending over the next five years.

Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings has argued that “the case for pursuing about a 10 percent reduction in the core defense budget is strong enough to warrant serious consideration in the years ahead.”  Other analysts have not only echoed calls for defense cuts, some of them have even praised Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – a Republican holdover from the Bush Administration – for creating the conditions that allow them to be advanced in a bipartisan fashion.  One member of the Rivlin-Domenici panel declared that Secretary Gates “helpfully opened the door when he highlighted the need for savings.” Now Secretary Gates has been left trying to close the door, warning that Pentagon cuts of the magnitude being discussed would be “catastrophic,” while barely making a dent in deficit reduction.

Those combing through the defense recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson commission or the Rivlin-Domenici Task Force will find them devoid of rigorous analysis and grounded in oversimplified assertions and modern mythology.  Much of this mythology surrounding defense spending has been addressed by the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Foreign Policy Initiative in their joint “Defending Defense” project. Nevertheless, there is an enduring perception that defense spending is like all other discretionary spending and, therefore, must absorb its “fair share” of cutbacks.  In the words of one Washington Post commentator, it is time to “slash defense spending along with everything else.”

Defense spending, however, is not like “everything else.”  Simply put, the non-defense portion of discretionary spending is influenced exclusively by internal domestic considerations regarding competing social priorities.  On the other hand, investment in defense is heavily influenced by the threats others pose to American society, i.e., external events, many of which are beyond our control.

Freezing defense spending, as the Rivlin-Domenici Task Force proposes, might be acceptable if we could also freeze the threats to American security or the requirements imposed on us by our global responsibilities in a dangerous world.  Unfortunately, we cannot.

To argue against sharp defense budget cuts is not to argue in favor of wasteful expenditures.  No doubt greater efficiencies in Pentagon spending can be achieved at significant savings to the taxpayer.  But wholesale cuts to defense spending based on faulty assumptions, flawed logic, and the lack of intellectually rigorous analysis can have dangerous consequences.

Despite the lack of consensus on specifics, the pendulum seems to be swinging toward trimming future defense outlays.  Already there are reports that the Defense Department is being directed to reduce its budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 and to forfeit some of the savings realized through the Department’s efficiencies initiative. General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated he has “zero faith” the Pentagon’s will be allowed to reinvest all of the savings in higher-priority military programs.

As the Obama Administration prepares to submit its fiscal year 2012 defense budget request to the new Congress early next year, Americans should be reminded that an adequate defense is a necessity, not an option that can be purchased on the cheap.  It’s time for some common sense on defense.

David J. Trachtenberg is president and CEO of Shortwaver Consulting and a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, 2001-2003.

(flickr/Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)