The Blog

The Unbearable Lightness of Barney

A Democratic congressman's irresponsible and impossible plan to cut the defense budget by 25 percent.

12:00 AM, Oct 31, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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Now that we know where the money is going, we can try to meet Barney Frank's goal of cutting 25 percent from the budget. The easiest thing to do would be eliminating all supplemental appropriations for the war--assuming that somehow one could instantly end the war and return all our troops to the U.S. But reality interferes with this fantasy: the war is not going to end overnight, and even a total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would not substantially reduce the tempo of operations and the need for supplementals. Following candidate Obama's policy (to the extent that one can nail Jell-O to the wall), one might expect that any savings in Iraq would be diverted to Afghanistan, where, even if the number of troops is lower, the cost of sustaining them in the field is much higher. At best, we might see supplementals to support the war fall to half their present level, or about $70 billion, an 11 percent saving. We now have to find the remaining 16 percent.

Let's agree from the outset that MILPERS cannot be reduced. The troops need to be paid (they get fussy if they are not), their expenses have to be met. The Democrats are on record as supporting both an increase in the number of troops and improvements in their quality of life, so this actually requires an increase in MILPERS, perhaps to as much as $130 billion--which puts back 2 percent from the 11 percent we just saved off the supplemental, requiring us to find cuts worth 18 percent from the Procurement, R&D and O&M accounts.

O&M is by far the largest account, so surely we can find something to cut there. But most of the cuts we took from the supplemental already come from O&M, and, as we noted, the tempo of operations will remain high, even if we pull out of Iraq. So we will have to keep spending about the same on O&M as we are today, unless we intend to cut back on training and maintenance, which would put the lives of troops at risk and create the kind of "hollow" forces we saw in the late 1970s and almost saw again in the mid-1990s. So we aren't going to be able to cut O&M.

That leaves just Procurement and R&D, which together account for about 36 percent of the DoD budget. To meet Frank's goal, we would have to cut spending in both categories by half. This means that most of the new weapon systems now in production could not be acquired in the numbers needed to replace the aging systems (most of our inventory was purchased during the Reagan era) in the numbers necessary to maintain front line strength. Many programs would have to be terminated, others would have to be cut back or "stretched out," leading, paradoxically, to higher costs in future years (because the unit cost of the items we do buy will be higher, and because the older systems we need to keep longer will become more expensive to maintain and operate).

Cuts in R&D amount to eating our technological seed corn. In an era of rapid technological change, a failure to invest today could lead to technical inferiority a decade or more from now. Worse, the U.S. will not be able to develop the kinds of systems it will need to fight the asymmetrical enemies we are most likely to face. For better or worse, our soldiers will have to prepare to fight the last war because they will be armed with the last war's weapons.

This is only a cursory analysis of the budget at its most superficial level, but it is enough to reveal that Barney Frank's desire to cut defense by 25 percent is either fantasy or lunacy--or a cynical attempt to play to the pacifist wing of his own party while distracting attention from his own culpability for the current financial crisis. In any case, Frank is very much alone in his desire to make such deep cuts in defense (though Obama makes noises of this sort from time to time, he is quick to backtrack). In fact, there is an emerging consensus that the U.S. must maintain its defense spending at close to its present levels for the foreseeable future.

The best way to understand what that means is defense as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). Though it is commonly believed that defense spending is at unprecedented levels (it is, if one just counts dollars), relative to the size of our economy, we are only spending about 4 to 4.5 percent of GDP on defense. This compares to 11.7 percent during the Korean War, 9.8 percent during the Vietnam War, 6 percent during the Reagan defense buildup, and 4.6 percent during the first Gulf War. Despite fighting a war on two fronts for six years while simultaneously attempting to modernize our forces, despite spending more money on defense than ever before, our economic growth has outpaced the growth of the defense budget by a wide margin. From an historical perspective, current spending levels are both affordable and the minimum appropriate level, given the global security situation.