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Does America need to cut defense spending?

By Topic A
Sunday, November 21, 2010;

The Post asked analysts and members of Congress whether the federal government should cut defense spending. Below are responses from Maya MacGuineas, Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, Ron Paul, Mackenzie Eaglen, Jane Harman and Rob Andrews.

MAYA MACGUINEAS

President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget

Defense cuts are not only on the table; they will almost certainly be part of any budget deal. Defense Secretary Robert Gates helpfully opened the door when he highlighted the need for savings, and now defense has become one of the areas of the budget with the strongest potential for a coalition of strange bedfellows, ranging from policymakers on the far left to the far right, all favoring cuts. (Granted, with a lot of non-supporters in between.)

Defense cuts need not compromise security, which must take precedence over budgetary savings. But savings from ending unnecessary weapons systems (many of which have become regional jobs programs more than security necessities) and reforming the generous and costly military health-care system, Tricare, in which participant costs have not gone up at all for 15 years, clearly need to be addressed. All told, savings in the high tens of billions a year should be a minimum goal, and savings of over $100 billion each year are in the realm of the possible later this decade.

Finally, this is the first time we have engaged in a prolonged war without any tax increases to pay for it. If operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, we should consider a war surtax and/or spending cuts in other areas of the budget to pay for the wars rather than borrowing the funds and adding to the massive national debt.

FREDERICK W. KAGAN AND KIMBERLY KAGAN

Frederick W. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.

Cutting U.S. defense spending would put the nation and the current global order at grave risk. International stability and American security are threatened by dangerous contingencies that are becoming increasingly likely. Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a world-changing event. The persistence of Islamist militant groups in Pakistan threatens stability on the subcontinent and security throughout the West. Militant Islamist sanctuaries are expanding in Somalia, Yemen, and equatorial Africa. A growing number of Islamist groups are seeking recognition from al-Qaeda and declaring their intentions of attacking the United States and its allies. Security and stability in Iraq remain fragile. The war in Afghanistan is at its height. This list of current conflicts and threats excludes the kinds of potential future threats for which the U.S. military must also be prepared, including conflict with China, serious challenges to the U.S. satellite constellation, the continued proliferation of long-range missile and nuclear technology, cyber-conflict, and many others.

There is no basis either in the present global security situation or in trends looking forward to suggest that the requirements for the U.S. military will diminish significantly. Cutting defense, therefore, can be justified only on the grounds that there are greater priorities than safeguarding the nation from visible threats. Protecting the American people from external attack is one of the few indisputable core functions of the federal government. Global economic downturns generally exacerbate instability, fuel unexpected outbursts of extremism and militancy, and drive those states with the greatest interest in maintaining global stability and the best ability to do so to turn inward and allow the world to slip into chaos. America must avoid repeating this mistake and must be prepared for the conflicts that are likely to ensue.

RON PAUL

Republican representative from Texas; candidate for president in 2008

The United States spends as much on its military budget as nearly the entire rest of the world combined. This is unwise and unsustainable, particularly when the current federal debt is $14 trillion. Furthermore, Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff posits that our actual net indebtedness, including future entitlements, may be an incomprehensible $200 trillion.

This year, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and I co-chaired the Sustainable Defense Task Force, which brought together defense experts from across the political spectrum to explore ways to reduce military spending in response to the budget deficit. Frankly, those who claim to oppose out-of-control government spending simply are not credible if they refuse cuts in military spending.

We must realize that cutting military spending is not the same as cutting defense, nor will it harm our ability to protect the United States. The problem with military spending is philosophical. Who determined that the United States should maintain a worldwide empire, with troops stationed in some 700 bases over more than 100 countries across the globe? This is not "conservatism." We must put to an end to the notion that we can police the world, run the inner workings of foreign countries, spread democracy worldwide, and bomb the rest of the world until it submits to our demands. Until then, we will not be able to make meaningful military spending cuts and we will not address the gathering economic apocalypse that is the real threat to our national security.

MACKENZIE EAGLEN

Research fellow for national security studies at the Heritage Foundation

Most advocating reductions in defense spending typically seek either to (1) pull back on what America does with its defense ("stop being a global policeman," "bring the troops home"); or (2) balance the federal checkbook using the haircut method (cut a little from everywhere to spread the pain).

Both positions have serious flaws.

The first ignores one fact: To cut defense responsibly, the president would first have to decide which of our commitments abroad could be abandoned safely - no easy task, given the scope of threats we face. And while the second may sound fair, simply axing defense today - the primary and only mandatory function of government - means we'll have to spend more later to rebuild.

Yes, defense should not be immune to "cuts." Taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely. But the military is flying, sailing and driving in a lot of equipment that is 20 to 60 years old. It's expensive to keep professionals in service, and their equipment has worn out at wartime rates.

Plus, as Colin Powell recently noted, the military is being asked to do more than the troops in World War II did - not just in Afghanistan, but in places such as Yemen, Haiti, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Somalia.

Some judicious cuts could make sense, but we need to spend to reconstitute our military right now. Unless America is ready to abandon its leadership role in the world, defense must be funded accordingly.

JANE HARMAN

Democratic representative from California; chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence

Hemorrhaging debt and deficits that threaten our national security are top agenda items for voters and me. America must live within its means. It's why I'm a Blue Dog Democrat and cast tough, career-risking votes in the 1990s that produced a balanced budget. The result was five years of unprecedented prosperity and growth.

In this new century, the budget challenge is even tougher - because of our fragile economy and persistent high unemployment. This calls for the use of a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. Across-the-board cuts are not the answer, but everything, including defense spending, entitlement and tax reform, must be on the table. I'm heartened that aerospace and defense executives in my congressional district support Defense Secretary Robert Gates's call to cut $100 billion from the defense budget - a budget nearly as large as the combined defense spending of the rest of the world!

Congress has a big role to play. Our Pentagon oversight must be clear-eyed: people, platforms and systems must protect us from present and future threats, not legacy threats. "Widget protection" must yield to cost-efficient, threat-based procurement. Doing otherwise adds to our debt and decreases our security.

ROB ANDREWS

Senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee; chairman of the committee's Defense Acquisition Reform Panel

The question is not simply how much money we spend on defense, but how we spend it. In World War II, France's Maginot Line failed not because it was poorly designed or placed, but because its massive cost prevented the investments that could have defeated the German blitzkrieg.

The money we spend on defense must be carefully targeted. If not, our defense spending may actually make us less secure. As we continue to fight a war in Afghanistan and draw down troops in Iraq, we also have very real national security needs emerging, such as the threat of a major war in cyberspace. We don't know everything about the shape of future warfare, but we know it is changing, and we need to be prepared.

At the same time, we know that the rapid growth at the Pentagon in recent years has created vast inefficiencies. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has set out to identify $100 billion in savings, and the Democratic Congress has already passed legislation to save tens of billions of dollars by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse in the Pentagon budget. These efforts only scratch the surface of the efficiencies that can be achieved.

However, Gates is also right to reinvest some of this money in needed new capabilities. These two priorities actually work in harmony. We will only be successful in protecting national security if we are willing to eliminate that which no longer works.

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