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Debunking the Arguments Against Cutting the Military Budget

With the release of the Defense Strategic Guidance detailing a scaling back of military financing, the usual suspects have come around to condemn the cuts. Now, let’s set aside for a moment the fact that there are no cuts to the military budget planned in this document. This would just slow the rate of growth somewhat. Further, this guidance only contemplates half the military cuts mandated by the debt limit deal, and the outcry against it is part of a bipartisan ploy to exemplify how the military couldn’t handle the second-round trigger cuts, which just isn’t true (the military budget would still be at FY2007 levels in that case, and still almost as much as every other country in the world spends on their militaries combined).

But let’s take these arguments in turn. First, detractors say that giving up the ability to fight two ground wars at once is a debilitating setback for a now-vulnerable superpower. In reality, the two-war strategy was a total myth in the first place:

[…] the suggestion that the country was ever braced for two wars at once was shattered over the past decade, beginning in 2001, when the George W. Bush administration had to establish a supplemental budget to pay first for Afghanistan and later for Iraq. A decade later, spending for “overseas contingency operations” in fiscal 2012 totaled $115 billion above the $525 billion allocated for the core Defense Department budget.

The military also didn’t have a big enough force for two wars. Beginning with the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration had not only to increase the size of the existing active-duty force but make extensive use the National Guard and Reserves.

Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Pentagon official under Ronald Reagan, said: “The debate of the number of wars is not inherently ridiculous but it comes close.”

Then there’s the argument that the military has not a bloated weapon systems problem, but a health care spending problem. And indeed, you can see that health care for the military and veterans has taken up a greater percentage of overall military spending. But that total remains relatively low. Military health costs were $52 billion in the 2012 budget, out of a total budget of over $676 billion. That’s 7.6% of the total (it’s only 9.5%, as it says in the story, if you ignore the overseas contingency budget). It is growing, and that may require adjustments, but outdated weapons systems and unnecessary overseas deployments have a far greater impact. And the health care issue is more about health care system spending generally than the military health care system, which is actually quite affordable in nominal terms. The real reason military health care costs are growing is that the private system is so unattractive, military families will do anything to hang on to their health care provided by DoD. Fix the health care system, and then you fix the military budget issue on health care.

Finally, Binyamin Applebaum over the weekend alleged that innovation would suffer with a reduced military budget:

The wellspring of this prosperity is not just the Defense Department’s vast payroll, nor just the fat profit margins of its contractors. It is also the Pentagon’s unmatched record in developing technologies with broad public benefits — like the Internet, jet engines and satellite navigation — and then encouraging private companies to reap the rewards.

And as the Pentagon confronts the prospect of cutting its budget by about 10 percent over the next decade, even some people who do not count themselves among its traditional allies warn that the potential impact on scientific innovation is being overlooked. Spending less on military research, they say, could reduce the economy’s long-term growth.

“If catalyzing innovation is going to be an important part of our economic strategy, then we better be careful how we handle” the military budget, said Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. “I’d like to see a lot less weapons and a lot less focus on them, but it’s not all about that.”

I reject the idea that the only agency in the government able to do R&D is the Defense Department. It does not appear to be an efficient or targeted R&D process. Similarly, R&D is a small percentage of the overall military budget, which could be protected if the R&D innovation is really so cherished. As Ezra Klein writes, “We shouldn’t just shovel money to bloated sectors in the hopes that some of it ends up funding innovations.”

In short, these notions that the military budget must be protected just come up short. They speak of people straining to make policy arguments when the real argument is political – that the military contracting lobby has a lot of friends in Washington, and they want to keep the gravy train going.

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David Dayen

David Dayen