Defense spending must have credit limits

Walter Pincus
Reporter September 12, 2011

Like children with a parent’s credit card, some Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee — joined by many other members of Congress and probably a good part of the public — want to keep spending on defense without caring, or even thinking about, who is going to pay the bill.

Maybe that’s too harsh a statement, but it’s what came to mind after reading the transcript of the committee’s hearing Thursday titled, “The Future of National Defense and the U.S. Military Ten Years After 9/11: Perspectives from Former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

It was reinforced Monday by the speech committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) made before the American Enterprise Institute. He talked of the costs of 10 years of warfare, the sacrifices made by U.S. fighting forces and the need to reconstitute their planes, ships and equipment. He warned that the message sent to our armed forces by proposed defense budget cuts “is clear: You are not our top priority.”

Often during Thursday’s committee session, a member or one of the former Pentagon chiefs talked about our volunteer military as “the best in the world” and how any proposed cuts beyond the legislated $440 billion over the next 10 years would hollow it out.

In his AEI prepared remarks, McKeon took it a step further: “Those cuts would open the door to aggression, as our ability to deter and respond to an attack would be severely crippled.”

No mention was made of defense spending having almost doubled during the past 10 years, and only in passing did someone say a look should be taken at the costs of retirement benefits and health-care programs for future members of the armed services.

No one focused on billions wasted on canceled weapons systems — think of your children throwing away or ignoring the toy or expensive jacket or dress they purchased on a whim using your credit card.

In the world that defense-spending boosters inhabit, “cost” is secondary. Words like “threats,” “security,” “risk,” “commitments,” “capabilities,” “weakness” and, most of all, “strategy” carry the conversation.

Threats get exaggerated.

McKeon told AEI, “For the past three years, President Obama’s administration has steadily lowered our guard” at a time when “danger has worsened.” He said a recent Pentagon study of the Chinese military “keeps our admirals up at night, and for good reason.”

He talked of China believing it “can achieve military parity with the United States.”

Some perspective is needed. A great deal recently was made over sea trials for China’s one aircraft carrier, which it purchased 13 years ago from Russia and is expected to use for research. According to that Pentagon study, “China could begin construction of a fully indigenous carrier in 2011, which could achieve operational capability after 2015.” The United States has 10 operational aircraft carriers and a new one under construction that is expected to join the fleet in 2015.

There were several mentions of the economy at both events, but often in what I term the “chicken and egg” context. “Our national security strategy must drive any debate over the level of resources that the nation should devote to national defense, and the ability of the American economy to generate these resources must inform our strategic thinking,” was the way it was put to the committee by retired Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Former Joint Chiefs chairman Peter Pace, a retired Marine Corps general, said our defense budget “should be strategy-based. What do you want your military to do for your country? . . . If we know what the strategy is that we want our military to execute, then the folks across the river in the Pentagon who do this for a living can tell you how many planes, how many ships, how many troops they need to execute the combatant commanders’ war plans.”

That may sound sensible, but of course everyone has his own idea of what the “strategy” ought to be.

Giambastiani outlined what he thought the “aims” of our strategy should be. They included “protecting U.S. territory from attack, defending our allies against aggression and preventing a single power from becoming so strong that it threatens to dominate the Eurasian continent.” He added “service of the common good,” which included providing “relief from natural disasters” and “unfettered freedom of navigation on the high seas.”

Threats also have to be met. These included al-Qaeda and its affiliates; weapons of mass destruction and particularly nuclear arms (North Korea and Iran); and, of course, China. Giambastiani also said he could not imagine the United States abrogating “any of our mutual defense treaties that commit us to the defense of allies across the globe.”

Pace at the hearing put forward a stunning fact we should remember: “Less than 1 percent of the nation has been defending the other 99 percent for 10 years.” McKeon on Monday picked up that thought with a slightly different twist: Since Sept. 11, 2001, he said, “the majority of Americans have lived without being touched by the horrors of conflict. We are at the mall while Marines are in the mud.”

Only Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) called the committee’s attention to the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq are “the first wars in American history that we didn’t even try to pay for. There was no war tax. There were no war bonds. . . . Instead, we borrowed the money from China and other foreign nations.”

We are still borrowing for our defense and not paying for it. Maybe it’s time for the parent to take back that credit card.

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