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What Is a “Strong” Defense? July 13, 2010

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Dr. Christopher A. Preble is the Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and a member of the Sustainable Defense Task Force.  He and Benjamin Friedman authored the “Strategy of Restraint” chapter of SDTF’s report.

by Christopher A. Preble

It has been one month since the Sustainable Defense Task Force released its report, Debt, Deficits, & Defense: A Way Forward. My fellow task force member Laura Peterson posted an excellent discussion of the substance of the report here last month, so there is no need to repeat that here.

Of more interest is the reaction that the report has elicited. There have been a number of interesting analyses in the media and the blogosphere, including Foreign Policy’s “Reality Check” and on the op-ed pages of the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. There have also been some ridiculous commentaries that have mischaracterized the report or otherwise misread its core arguments.

The most common response has been some sympathy for our argument that military spending should be subjected to the same scrutiny that should be applied to other government spending. There are still a fair number of people, however, who share our concern about the deficit, but who counter “But I want a strong defense.”

Who doesn’t?

The task force report was written with a single consideration in mind: in what ways, and where, could we make cuts in military spending that would not undermine U.S. security? It is our contention that much of what we call “defense” spending isn’t really essential to U.S. defense, and that unnecessary or wasteful spending is also harmful to U.S. security.

This is hardly a new concept. Dwight David Eisenhower warned about the burdens of excessive military spending on the wider economy. Robert Gates, channeling Ike, has said “The United States should spend as much as necessary on national defense, but not one penny more.”

A leading conservative in the Senate, Tom Coburn (R-OK) wrote that deficit reduction commission “affords us an opportunity to start some very late due diligence on national defense spending… [as well as] reduce wasteful, unnecessary, and duplicative defense spending that does nothing to make our nation safe.”

The subjective matter is what constitutes “excessive.” “Unnecessary” is a similarly elusive concept. Entire books are written on such questions (shameless plug). I’m not going to resolve them in a blog post.

But, suffice it to say, and paraphrasing Gates here, if we “can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on a budget of more than half a trillion dollars a year,” then we have some pretty big problems.

In real terms, the United States spends more on its military than at any time since World War II. More than during Korea, more than during Vietnam, more than during the Reagan-era buildup in the early 1980s.  National security spending, which includes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has grown 86 percent in real terms since 1998.

We are spending this much on our military at a time when our primary national security threat ostensibly comes from a terrorist organization – not a nation state in possession of a massive army, a massive navy, and thousands of nuclear weapons.

At some level, it seems utterly absurd to be spending so much money to counter such a threat.

So I’ll close on one final note, respecting shares of global military spending today relative to where we were during the Cold War: “In 1986, US military spending was only 60% as high as that of its adversaries (taken as a group). Today, America spends more than two and one-half times as much as does the group of potential adversary states, including Russia and China. This means that if the United States were to cut it’s spending in half today, it would still be spending more than its current and potential adversaries – and the balance would still be twice as favorable as during the Cold War.” (SDTF Report; emphasis in original.)

The SDTF report’s savings, totaling nearly $1 trillion over ten years, constitute just under 16 percent of projected military spending over that same period. In the unlikely event that we manage to cut military spending at all, we will obviously be very strong militarily.

What all that military strength actually contributes to our security is still an open question.



1. What Is a ‘Strong’ Defense? | Think Tank West - July 14, 2010

[…] Read the rest here. […]

2. Attack the System » Blog Archive » Updated News Digest July 16-18, 2010 - July 17, 2010

[…] What Is a “Strong” Defense? by Christopher Preble […]

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