Five key questions about the defense budget?

Author:Erwin, Sandra I.
Position::DEFENSEINSIDER - Interview

Public angst about the mounting national debt, mixed with uneasiness about the future of the United States as a military and economic superpower; is fueling a debate about the prospects of defense spending. The Pentagon's budget has doubled In the past decade. That level of growth already has been declared unsustainable. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the post 9/11 spending gusher is over, but it is not yet clear what that means. Is this just a slowdown in spending or is the Pentagon going to have to seriously do its part to lower the national debt? Top U.S. officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, have dubbed the soaring debt "our biggest security threat."

While these issues will take years to unravel, it's worth pondering some of the key questions that policymakers should bear in mind when it comes to the defense budget:

1 Is the United States spending too much on defense? More importantly, can the nation afford what it is currently spending?

With a defense budget exceeding $700 billion (80 percent is the baseline budget, 20 percent funds the Iraq and Afghanistan wars), the United States is now spending more than at any time since World War II. Yet, as a share of the U.S. economy, defense amounts to 4.8 percent, which is lower than what the nation spent during the Vietnam and Korea wars, or World War II. "As a percentage of GDP, we're below average," says Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "What this says is that what we're spending today is affordable," although it can be argued that the money is not spent the right way, says Harrison.

But in the context of today's national debt, defense could increasingly become an unaffordable luxury. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that by 2017, the annual interest on the debt alone will exceed the entire defense budget.

To protect future defense budgets, some Pentagon officials have advocated setting a 4 percent of GDP floor. But that may not be a wise move, says Harrison. "I wouldn't want to be locked into that line of thinking. What happens when the economy crashes and GDP goes down?"

European allied nations, by the way, spend anywhere from 1 to 2 percent of GDP on defense.

2 The U.S. military spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. So why is the Pentagon worried about future confrontations with China or Iran, which spend far less on defense than the United States?


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