The Magazine

Our Country’s Battles

We have today an aging and shrinking Air Force and Navy, an Army that is overstretched, reserve forces that are far too ‘active’ in their rate of deployment, and too few dollars to rebuild and modernize.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By GARY SCHMITT and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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It is increasingly likely that the Republican party, in league with more conservative Democrats, will have a decisive say in Congress following November’s elections. The GOP could even be in the majority in the House. With this possibility in sight, the primary focus of conservatives has been the repeal of the recently enacted health care legislation. Given the magnitude of the bill and its impact on both health care and the economy, this is perfectly reasonable. But health care is not the only matter that should come under review if a new working majority of conservatives results from the upcoming elections. Equally important are the Obama administration’s plans for America’s military. 

Our Country’s Battles

The president’s proposed budgets call for an ever-increasing piece of the federal pie to go to domestic programs and a decreasing amount to national defense. The Obama administration has already flattened out the defense budget this year, while domestic spending has exploded; in last year’s stimulus, virtually every federal program got significant additional money except defense.

Some comment that this is because the Pentagon got its big boost after 9/11. But the total defense budget has increased since 2001 only in the sense that the country paid for fighting two extended wars. The core defense budget—the cost of raising, training, and equipping the military—has barely grown. As a percentage of the GDP, the core defense budget has risen from 3 percent in 2000 to 3.5 percent today, with much of that change coming from increases in personnel and health costs associated with an all-volunteer force. In reality, the Bush team made little headway in filling the defense hole that had been dug by the Clinton administration over the previous eight years. 

We have today an aging and shrinking Air Force and Navy, an Army that is overstretched, reserve forces that are far too “active” in their rate of deployment, and too few dollars to rebuild and modernize. And if the Obama domestic agenda is implemented, discretionary funds available to fund those who “fight our country’s battles/ In the air, on land, and sea” will shrink to a level at which maintaining the dominant military we have become accustomed to since the end of the Cold War will almost certainly be a thing of the past. Indeed, the Obama administration’s projected budgets have the defense burden shrinking to less than 3 percent of GDP in the decade ahead. A level not seen since before World War II. 

This budget reality is reflected in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the legislatively mandated review by the Department of Defense of the country’s longer-term defense requirements. The QDR is supposed to bring together our strategy and our military capabilities in order to address our ability to handle today’s conflicts as well as the foreseeable threats down the road. But while the 2010 QDR spells out some future problems, it implicitly accepts the administration’s lack of interest in defense procurement, and punts on providing any answers to those problems.

In testimony in mid-April before the House Armed Services Committee, William Perry, secretary of defense during the Clinton years and co-chairman of an independent panel set up by Congress to assess the adequacy of the QDR, noted that the review was supposed to look ahead 20 years, “informed by but not constrained by budget planning.” The members of the panel, he added, were asked “whether the force structure needs [to be] changed to comply with that strategy. So, a reasonable question to ask is, ‘Does the QDR do that?’ In my judgment, the QDR is a very useful document, but it does not do that.” 

And then Perry subtly but correctly pointed to the large flaw in the document:

As secretary, I always felt constrained by the budget that Congress had appropriated for me and my best estimate [of] what they might appropriate in future years. That certainly influenced my actions and planning. But I also felt a responsibility to inform the Congress that if I saw some threat looming in the future for which the budget did not adequately prepare me. And let me give you one example. If I believed, for example, that a new kind of a threat—a cyber threat—was emerging a few years in the future and that we were not adequately—and our present budget did not adequately prepare for that, I would feel obliged to inform the Congress that this was a threat to us coming up and that the present budget did not adequately deal with that. And propose additional funds coming from them.

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