What People Don’t Understand About Defense
Every time our country gets into a financial hole-and most days when we’re not-you can find someone who wants to dismantle the Department of Defense and send their whole budget to the Department of Education. In our current political/fiscal environment, many Democrats and left-leaning pundits have either joined or reaffirmed their membership in Washington’s “cut defense NOW!!” choir, in an attempt to call the bluff of Republicans, conservatives, and the Tea Party movement.
So, in an attempt to explain to people why the cost of defense is as high as it is-and in light of the President’s all-but-inevitable-post-bin Laden-drawdown, some harsh realities.
It costs more to rebuild a reduced force than it does to maintain one. Remember Rumsfeld’s statement about going to war with the Army you have, and not the one you want? That’s the scenario that arises when you gut the military based on some sort of mythical “peace dividend.” The reality is that unless you know exactly the next type of war you’re going to fight (for the next several decades), it makes no sense-fiscal, strategic, or otherwise-to draw down a military force when you’re not at war. Besides, what happens if you need to go to war in a hurry, and you’ve stopped production on some of your most advanced weapons systems? Speaking of…
Research and development (R&D) for new weapons systems is the MOST expensive part of the military budget. We hear people talk about “not fighting the last war” or wanting to get away from “Cold War-era weapons systems” all the time. Well, that requires a choice: do we spend the money to find, test, and-very often-create new technologies, or do we continue to spend money on the same “Cold War-era” systems? In some cases-the Navy’s Aegis program-it makes much more sense to not replace the old system, given its effectiveness (Ageis is the basis for the Navy’s ballistic missile defense system, and was developed in the 1960’s). However, if you’re wondering why the (now-cancelled) DDG-1000 program cost $6.6 billion per ship, or the Gerald R. Ford carrier costs $13.5 billion, or the F-35 program is currently sitting at $207.8 million per plane, it’s because many of the technologies that these systems will be equipped with are being created as a result of their construction.
The caveat here, of course, is when R&D spending on a program becomes a black hole…which, without proper oversight, can happen (see the Army’s Future Combat Systems program, which never really got off the ground, despite billions spent).
Draw downs in manpower usually involve increases in something else. Want to go to war without putting troops on the ground? A noble cause…however, not one that can be done on the cheap. Bombs, ordnance, fuel…these things do cost money as well (although they come out of a different line in DoD’s budget). Not to mention the fact that if you’re using planes and ships more then men, you’re going to need…a lot more of them. They’re going to wear down, and you’re going to have to replace them (which also ultimately requires more manpower). Same with people as well, but ask yourself: does it make a lot of sense to set an arbitrary (and largely artificial) limit on manpower when, even from boot camp to grave, it costs significantly less to send people to war than to send technology?
Now, people will say, “but you’re a Tea Party Republican…aren’t you supposed to be about fiscal conservatism?” Or, “you’re just pro-war, and want to see companies get rich from killing.”
First off, no one, especially those of us who have experienced it, is pro-war. No rational person can willingly view war as sport. In that regard, Robert E. Lee was right. Many of the people who level that specific charge are largely ignorant of the true costs of a nation at war, most of which aren’t realized for years after they’ve stopped protesting it.
Second, the business of war (and there is one) is not viable to the state in the long run, as over time, it does become unsustainable. Nothing wrong with acknowledging that; it’s economic reality. There’s no way we could build or maintain the 600-ship Navy of Reagan in today’s fiscal environment (thankfully, there’s not a need for it either). A completely militarized state will, ultimately, crumble under the weight of both maintaining and improving that militarization.
Bringing me to my final point:
It should be our goal to set defense policy and budgeting around the actual needs of the force, and not by how much those needs costs. Providing for the common defense-and all the associated price tags that come with that-is a constitutional responsibility of our government. However, note that I said needs. Does an airplane necessarily need an alternate engine because it will provide jobs in a legislator’s district? Probably not. There are smart defense cuts that can be made; Robert Gates made many that ultimately did not, and/or will not, harm the strength and capabilities of our military.
Unfortunately, we seem all too willing to make today the same mistakes made after WWII, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. A little bit of knowledge would prevent us from repeating those ultimately more costly mistakes.