The Magazine

The Big Squeeze

The Obama administration’s defense budget portends strategic decline.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By GARY SCHMITT and THOMAS DONNELLY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On the 65th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe in early May, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. His speech was not about America’s unprecedented, massive marshalling of resources, men, and materiel to defeat the forces of fascism that threatened to overwhelm the West. Instead, its underlying message was ultimately one of strategic retreat—signaling his and the Obama administration’s view that the richest country in the world can no longer afford to sustain the military’s current force structure and capabilities. 

The Big Squeeze

Photo Credit: Thomas Fluharty

Channeling his inner President Eisenhower, Gates sought to make this message sound not only reasonable but morally justified by belittling Washington, the town where he has spent most of his career. Pandering to those on the left who always see defense spending as dangerous, he raised anew Eisenhower’s overwrought concern about the creation of a “garrison state” and a “military-industrial complex.” Pandering to those on the right who see the Pentagon as a gigantic sink hole for tax dollars, he dredged up the old saw about the Pentagon being a “Puzzle Palace” and stated that “the attacks of September 11, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending.” 

The secretary—along with the Obama administration—wants Americans to believe there is no choice but to cut the defense budget given economic and fiscal realities. Just as there is no crying in baseball, however, there are no inevitabilities in politics. The administration is indeed squeezing defense spending more and more tightly, but that is a product of decisions made and policies chosen. They can and should be revisited.

Speaking of gushers, compare for a moment the size of the Obama stimulus package in 2009—nearly $800 billion—with the more than $300 billion Gates has already cut from the Pentagon’s budget and the planned “flat-lining” of defense expenditures in the years ahead. And while the secretary talks about cutting overhead by getting rid of unnecessary generals and consultants, the administration has been busy hiring tens of thousands of new federal workers. Gates himself wants to add some 30,000 to the Pentagon’s rolls to oversee military acquisitions. Surely, civil servants are not needed more than additional Marines or soldiers, given the back-breaking pace of deployments in recent years and continued overuse of the National Guard and reserves. And who in the administration or congressional leadership is arguing for tough love when it comes to so-called nondiscretionary spending (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and service on the debt)? Right now, those programs cost three times as much as defense, and by the end of a two-term Obama administration they will cost closer to five times as much. 

Defense spending has gone up. But never in our history have we fought wars of this magnitude as cheaply. Take, for example, the percentage of the federal budget allocated to defense: In 1994, two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pentagon spending amounted to slightly more than 19 percent of the budget; in 2010, it is the same. And if the administration has its way, that figure will drop to 15.6 percent by 2015. Is any other part of the federal budget getting similarly whacked? 

The budget increases that have occurred, moreover, are largely tied to fighting the wars. When Bill Clinton left the White House and Dick Cheney told the military that “help [was] on the way,” the defense burden stood at 3 percent of GDP—a post-World War II low. When George W. Bush headed out the door, the figure for the core defense budget was about 3.5 percent. This is an increase, to be sure, but not one to make the military flush after a decade of declining budgets and deferred procurement.

In his speech, Gates stated that the U.S. military has more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft—an impressive number. What he did not mention is that the vast majority of the planes have been flying for years, were designed decades ago, and are supported by a tanker fleet that first entered the force six years before Barack Obama was born. Critically, fewer than 150 of these combat aircraft are top-of-the-line, stealthy F-22s, production of which has been capped at 187. Yet even this number doesn’t quite capture how limited the force is. Consider the F-22s needed for training, the dispersal of the remaining number among various bases, and the reality that for every plane on station there are two or three in queue, and you get a sense of just how few air-dominance planes we might have on hand during a crisis.

Recent Blog Posts