After three months of very impressive decisions regarding national security, President Obama made perhaps his first significant mistake. It concerns the defense budget, where his plans are insufficient to support the national security establishment over the next five years. Thankfully, this mistake can be fixed before it causes big harm -- either by Congress this year or the administration itself next year.
The administration is hardly slashing funds for defense; it is simply adopting a policy of zero real growth in the "base budget" (the part that does not include war costs, which are too unpredictable to include in this analysis). Specifically, the base budget is to grow 2 percent a year over the next five years. But with the inflation rate expected to average over 1.5 percent, the net effect is essentially no real growth. Cumulatively, that would leave us about $150 billion short of actual funding requirements through 2014. The administration is right to propose increasing resources for the State Department and aid programs. But it is unwise politics and unwise strategy to put these key elements of foreign policy in direct competition with each other, as appears to be the case in the new budget.
For the Defense Department to merely tread water, a good rule of thumb is that its inflation-adjusted budget must grow about 2 percent a year (roughly $10 billion annually, each and every year). Simply put, the costs of holding on to good people, providing them with health care and other benefits, keeping equipment functional, maintaining training regimes, and buying increasingly complex equipment tend to grow faster than inflation. This is, of course, no more an absolute rule than is Moore's law about changes in computing capacity. But like Moore's law, it tends to hold up remarkably well with time, especially when downsizing the Defense Department's force structure is not really an option, and it is not today.
Before we all go bowing down to the necessities of the Defense budget, let's take a little closer look.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), this is how world military expenditures laid out in 2008:
1. US $604 Billion (41% of total world military expenditures)
2. China $84.9 B [estimated through open sources] (5.8%)
3. France $65.7 B (4.5%)
4. UK $65.3 B (4.5%)
5. Russia $58.6 B [estimated through open sources] (4.0%)
6. Germany $46.2 B (3.2%)
7. Japan $46.3 B (3.2%)
8. Italy $40.6 B (2.8%)
9. Saudi Arabia $38.2 B (2.6%)
10. India $30.0 B (2.1%)
And here's how US Defense Spending has fared over the past two decades (also SIPRI data)
1988: $293.1 B
1989: $304.0 B
1990: $306.2 B
1991: $280.3 B
1992: $305.1 B
1993: $297.6 B
1994: $288.1 B
1995: $278.9 B
1996: $271.4 B
1997: $276.3 B
1998: $274.3 B
1999: $281.0 B
2000: $301.7 B
2001: $312.7 B
2002: $356.7 B
2003: $415.2 B
2004: $464.7 B
2005: $503.4 B
2006: $527.7 B
2007: $557.0 B
2008: $607.2 B
SIPRI also shows that world-wide miltiary expenditures have grown 45% over the past decade, from $846 Billion to $1126 Billion, with US military expenditures increasing 64% during the same period.
Now let's go back to that O'Hanlon notion that downsizing the Defense Department's force structure is not really an option. Why not?
Because we're fighting two wars of choice in the Iraq and Afghanistan [Want to argue the point about when not if Afghanistan became a war of choice? Name your time.], preparing contingency plans for military operations in Iran, rattling sabers at North Korea....
Shit. While we weren't looking, we became the world's f**king policeman again.
Why doesn't China have to use military force to intervene in the Af-Pak-India theater? Because we'll do it for her. [You do favors for your creditors.]
Why aren't China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan primarily responsible for curtailing North Korea's nuclear ambitions? Because we'll do it for them.
Will Rogers once said the US would send the Marines into any country that could get together twenty people who wanted them.
Times have changed.
Today, the US will send in the military [over 800 military bases on foreign soil and still growing!] to any country where there's weapons to be sold, oil to be found, or creditor nations to be appeased.
O'Hanlon, SecDef Gates, Generals Petraeus, Odierno, and McChrystal--as well as the President of the United States--are all correct in realizing that we can't cut the Defense Budget ever unless we change the way we use our military to carry out our foreign policy.
And they don't want to change it.