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High Noon: Right Versus Left On Military Spending; Truman Project Speaks

Posted by Colin Clark on



BY Rachel Kleinfeld

Left, right. When it comes to the military, those labels aren’t supposed to mean much. But they do because, simply, those who believe in their parties define themselves in opposition to each other. While it rarely provides Americans with the rich debate and soaring rhetoric one sees in a parliamentary system, especially in the House of Commons, pitting the two sides against one another can result in new ideas and better directions. Earlier today, the two sides sat down at an event hailed as High Noon in the nation’s capital and hammered out their positions. The National Review and The Heritage Foundation sponsored the debate, which featured two conservatives and two liberals, Following are the views of the Left as delivered by  Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman National Security Project. This was written before the event. To read the Rght’s perspective, click here. Let us know who you think presents the answers that best suit the nation’s military. Try to transcend any partisan bent you might have! (We’re trying to get a link to the event debate. If we find one, we’ll post it.) The Editor. 

Are we living through an age of military austerity? Certainly, under sequestration, the most nihilistic policy ever orchestrated against our defense, it feels that way. But this is a self-inflicted wound. The spending cuts imposed by Congress’ Damoclean sword could be reversed by politicians willing to confront the need to raise some revenue from the wealthiest, and reform our entitlement programs to keep them from going bankrupt.

In reality, our defense budget has risen 600% since the 1960s, and we continue to spend more on our defense budget than the next 13 countries in the world combined. That includes China, whose defense budget numbers are murky, but which the Pentagon believes spends only about 1/3 as much annually as we do. We face not austerity, but the need to adapt.

We’ve evolved our national security posture to meet changing threats following World War II, in the 1990s, and after September 11. It’s been twelve years since that cataclysm, two major wars, and a huge run up of our national debt. It’s high time to devise new budgeting, based not on last decade’s swollen numbers, but on a strategic assessment of our threats and how to best meet them.

We face a world that does not have a single, overarching enemy. No Soviet Union stands poised with thousands of nuclear missiles on alert, able to annihilate large swaths of the American homeland. Instead, we face traditional threats from states like Iran, and threats against soft-targets from external and internal violent extremists. We must also be able to support our treaty allies from the threats that they face. These allies allow us to do more with less, and reduce instability.

Ideally, we address these multiple needs through presence and deterrence whenever possible, and kinetic war when we must. To do that, we must build stability by mitigating threat-multipliers, such as growing water scarcity, oil dependence that subjects us to economic shocks, and allying ourselves to brittle autocracies that can fall quickly and unexpectedly. Finally: we must be able to seize opportunity – to shape the terrain of the world so that America continues to be an economically strong, vital country that inspires the world through its innovation and ideals.

When we look at today’s world, one fact is clear: many of our threats can’t be addressed by the Pentagon alone. We are going to need to protect the homeland against extremists – for which tanks are less useful than Treasury officials cutting off terrorist financing. Last week’s Pentagon report on cyberattacks showed how defense contractors’ technology has been targeted for theft – but the DoD doesn’t protect domains in the .com sector. Given demographic trends, future wars are going to include more urban conflict. That means we’ll need to think about how civilians are fed, where they get water, and their electrical infrastructure. Drones can’t do governance – and our military isn’t the best locale for that expertise, either.

Our national strength will be decided along the seams across agencies. We need a more robust USAID, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security. The budgets of all of these agencies together are under $100 billion, less than 1% of the budget. They are under-resourced and, as a result, under-perform. This leaves our military doing jobs that most service-members are not trained to do, but which they recognize are vital to our national security. Those civilian agencies must be boosted.

Within the Pentagon budget, we also need to make changes. Many so-called defense hawks are nostalgic for battles on the plains of northwest Europe between tanks, or for warfare on the open seas with a 600 ship navy. That’s not the world we live in: we don’t need 6,000 tanks or 600 ships anymore than we need a horse-based cavalry. Legacy projects that are really jobs-boosters for Congress also have no strategic role. Our industrial base should grow. But with manufacturing we need – not Congressional pork. Michael O’Hanlon’s new book: Healing the Wounded Giant:, has great suggestions for systems and platform cuts.

We can also reduce our nuclear arsenal, which far outguns what we need and which leaders such as former Secretary of Defense William Perry, Senator Nunn, George Schultz, General Cartwright, and Henry Kissinger see as a vulnerability in the face of super-empowered terrorists looking to get their hands on a weapon. The military has already considered careful cuts to personnel. That includes a hard strategic look at military healthcare system, which now costs 10% of the Pentagon budget and is projected to rise. We owe those who fight care after they return home – a bankrupt and unsustainably system is no way to provide that for the long haul.

Then, we need to invest. We face complex, evolving threats. That means we must have an adaptable military that can avoid getting mired in any single threat scenario. Modular weapons systems, such as those proposed by former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, are a good start.  ) Military R&D is an upfront cost that creates long-term savings while enabling us to shape the battlefield to our liking. We should increase R&D across the DoD and other agencies.

We must also get structures right. Our current system misaligns incentives for contractors to do good work on time and under budget – we need more investment in oversight to cut costs overall.

We can also cut costs an improve efficiency by providing more flexible spending. That would require Congress to consider two-year appropriations cycles across agencies – something that will also enable better programming. We must also stop funding military programs based on continuing resolutions, which enables legacy programs to siphon away money better spent on more relevant capabilities.

A 21st century security strategy builds stability abroad to reduce conflict. It creates the tools to achieve victory quickly and decisively when force is necessary. And it maintains the economic strength that is the root of all forms of power. That’s a budget for national strength.

Rachel Kleinfeld, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is also founding president of the Truman National Security Project. [Corrected name of Truman National Security Project in two places. 12:45 p.m. May 16.]

What do you think?