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How Can We Bring the Defense Budget into Alignment with Fiscal Realities While Meeting Our 21st Century National Security Needs?

When President Barack Obama announced a new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan in December 2009 he spoke of the need for a confined set of objectives that could be achieved in a specified time frame, citing in part the need to limit the mission to one that could be achieved at “reasonable cost.” The president took some criticism for citing cost as a basis for constraining security objectives. Yet, it is evident that at some point more defense spending can make a country weaker—if “strength” is rightly understood to be about more than just short-term military power.

Even with a built-in assumption that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be concluded before 2015, U.S. defense spending in that year is still projected to be at a higher level, adjusted for inflation, than in any year in the entire post-World War II period prior to 2005. The United States spends almost as much on defense as every other country in the world combined. In 2015 spending on defense and other “security” activities will take up close to 20 percent of the federal budget.

And, of course, if the projected savings from the end of the two current wars we are fighting don’t materialize, or another war we cannot now foresee becomes necessary, then the budget deficit will be worse than anticipated. The upshot: The commission must address defense spending. Just some selected examples of acquisition savings include:

  • Producing only one Virginia-class attack submarine per year instead of two, saving $2 billion
  • Cutting the purchase of F-35 joint strike fighters in half, saving $4 billion
  • Keeping missile defense systems in the research phase and delaying deployment until they work, saving $6 billion

The bottom line is that without addressing defense spending, expected to be close to $700 billion in 2015, it will be difficult to reverse the growth of unsustainable deficits. The commission needs to consider whether this level of investment in the Pentagon is the best way to keep our nation secure.

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