Strengthen Our Nation by Lowering Defense Spending

Sometime next week, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, may or may not release their final set of recommendations, depending on whether they can muster enough votes within the commission in support of their far-ranging draft proposal released earlier this month. But in one area, at least, let’s hope they can, because their ideas on how to reduce the federal deficit include a welcome and necessary slate of proposals to trim the U.S. defense budget as part of an overall reduction in federal spending. Their draft proposal not only makes good fiscal sense but also ultimately benefits U.S. national security.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates rightly compares the increase in U.S. defense spending since the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 to an open spigot. For fiscal year 2011, which began last month, the Obama administration is requesting $739 billion for the national defense budget category—code number 050 for budget geeks—which includes spending for the baseline defense budget, operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and defense-related spending outside of the Department of Defense, largely funds directed to the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons priorities.

This request is larger, in inflation-adjusted terms, than any request since the end of World War II, including peak budget requests for the Cold War and the wars in Vietnam and Korea. Defense spending now constitutes around 19 percent of the federal budget and more than half of all U.S. discretionary spending. If this fiscal year’s request is approved by Congress, the Department of Defense estimates national defense spending will constitute 19.6 percent of the federal budget.

As we have repeatedly pointed out, this level of spending is unsustainable. What’s more, some of the defense systems now being funded are dramatically over budget or behind schedule, or are unsuitable to meet the current and projected national security needs of the United States. We simply cannot continue to direct scarce taxpayer dollars to inefficient or unnecessary programs. As we pointed out in our September 2010 report, “Strong and Sustainable,” the Defense Department could save more than $109 billion in fiscal year 2015 through canceling or scaling back a number of programs, including:

  • The V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft procured primarily for the U.S. Marine Corps
  • The DDG-51 destroyer, a multimission vessel that can conduct antiair and antisubmarine operations
  • The Marine Corps’ expeditionary fighting vehicle, an amphibious assault vehicle intended to carry troops from ship to shore, and up to 345 miles on land
  • The post-September 11 increase in the ground forces, which added 92,000 active-duty troops to the Army and Marine Corps

Acting on these suggested cutbacks alongside a menu of other sensible cost-control measures that we detailed in our report, would bring our defense spending back in line with our nation’s fiscal capabilities.

Indeed, former Clinton administration official Bowles and former Republican Senator Simpson appear to be in agreement with a number of the proposals we outlined in that report. We called for $25 billion of Secretary Gates’ planned efficiency savings to be directed toward deficit reduction rather than being rolled back into other areas of the defense budget. The co-chairs agreed, but suggested that the savings could be even larger ($28 billion).

Similarly, we called for $6 billion in savings from sensible changes in the military health care system, and the co-chairs agreed. Finally, we suggested that the Defense Department adopt an across-the-board cut to Research, Development, Test and Evaluation funding for a savings of $10 billion in FY2015; Bowles and Simpson called for a $7 billion cut.

The Bowles-Simpson proposal was followed by another ambitious slate of defense cuts proposed as part of a larger plan by the Debt Reduction Task Force at the Bipartisan Policy Center. This plan, co-authored by former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration, Alice Rivlin, and former Republican Senator Pete Domenici, proposes a five-year freeze on baseline defense spending, beginning in FY2012. In order to meet these new top-line goals, the report proposes a number measures aimed at many of the same priorities identified in “Strong and Sustainable.” Specifically, their proposal and ours call for:

  • Reducing research-development-test-and-evaluation, or RDT&E spending
  • Increasing cost-sharing for retirees using the military health care system
  • Reducing military end-strength, including troops stationed in Europe and Asia
  • Applying efficiency savings at the Defense Department to deficit reduction

The Rivlin-Domenici report also assumes a sharp reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next few years and rightly acknowledges the need for increased oversight of the intelligence budget in order to identify areas where reasonable savings could be achieved. We agree.

Our nation cannot buy perfect security, no matter how much we spend. And resisting well-reasoned cuts in defense spending in the name of national security is ultimately self-defeating. In fact, trimming national security spending in a sensible manner will allow the defense budget to contribute its share to reducing the national debt, which Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen calls “the most significant threat to our national security.

By ending strategically unnecessary programs and reducing funding for those programs that are not performing as needed to meet the needs of the armed forces, we can help rebuild a vibrant U.S. economy that is necessary to support a flexible and robust military. As presidents from Eisenhower to Obama have recognized, our ability to protect American national security abroad depends vitally on the strength of our economy at home. The Bowles-Simpson and Rivlin-Domenici proposals appear to have reached the same necessary conclusion. Let’s hope that in the U.S. national security arena these deficit reduction proposals are met with bipartisan support.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Laura Conley is a Research Assistant at the Center. For more details on the Center’s defense spending proposals go to the National Security page of our web site.