During President Trump’s recent address to Congress, he said we must add $54 billion of spending to the defense budget in order to bolster the nation’s defense capabilities. Considering the $1 trillion in defense sequestration during the Obama years, this number may be relatively modest. The problem is making an assessment of what’s adequate and necessary.
Defense spending in the age of advanced military hardware is an exercise in reading tea leaves. The number of variables in any equation often overwhelms the serious analyst.
Take the F-35 as an example. The head of the program said that the cost of the aircraft will be reduced to $85 million by 2018. But that number has significance only if seen against a backdrop of lifetime use. An aircraft with an 8,000 to 10,000 flight hour cycle is more expensive than one with a 5,000 hour life.
Then, there’s the question of mission. An aircraft designed to perform a single mission—e.g. the A-10 Warthog—is cheaper to build than an aircraft capable of multiple missions. However, single mission planes will necessitate a larger than anticipated force and arguably a budget increase.
In today’s environment, it’s also appropriate to ask whether the aircraft is manned or unmanned. Perhaps it’s wise to spend more on anti-air weapons and less on fighters and interceptors. Could stand-off platforms be less expensive in the long term than fighters and interceptors? Could stand-off weapons render Russian and Chinese airplanes irrelevant?
For a considerable period after World War II, military leaders and the corporate sector argued—without much push back—for additional annual defense spending. President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to this condition as “the military industrial complex.” With GDP growth at four percent, it was widely believed that continued defense spending provided an insurance policy against prospective threats.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the emerging sacrosanct entitlement expenditures, President Bill Clinton engaged in significant military retrenchment to close the nation’s budget gap. These defense cuts were increased dramatically by President Barack Obama, who implied that defense spending was fungible and could be the fulcrum that maintains budget equilibrium.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump maintained that we hollowed out our military assets and offered enemies global opportunities they did not have when U.S. military preeminence was unchallenged. Hence, the desire for additional spending.
But defense spending makes sense only when it’s directly related to an estimate of international threats, taking into account the means to neutralize those threats and the cost of those measures. What is one to make of a reduced Marine Corps 220,000 to 180,000—the total at the moment—if one cannot identify the Marine Corps mission? Similarly, how many planes would it take to challenge Russian dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean?
Much of defense spending applies to a Cold War apparatus that has limited application to terror inspired enemies. Can appropriations be calibrated to mission needs? Or does politics inhibit appropriate action? Our politicians shy away from any conflict that hints at heavy casualties. This cautionary provision makes sense, but it also affects expenditures. Flag officers contend that if you want fewer casualties, then we must invest in more advanced technology. A philosophical position drives procurement policy.
If the defense goal is to dominate anywhere, any time, against any foe (Trump-like considerations), the costs have to be stated explicitly. And it may mean that our aspirations are inconsistent with global realities or that a U.S. accustomed to “guns and butter” may, for a time, be more dependent on guns and national defense than entitlements. Try selling that proposition to those in the Democratic party.
Dr. Herbert I. London is the President of the London Center for Policy Research and is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written or contributed to 30 books and as a social critic, his work has been published in many prominent publications.