The Trouble With the Defense Budget

To be clear about something, the big problem with America's sky-high Pentagon budget isn't merely that it's big -- we're obviously capable of spending this much without wrecking the national economy and we have, in the past, spent a higher share of our economy on this stuff -- it's that so much of it is so clearly unnecessary. Fred Kaplan notes, for example, that the iron laws of inter-service rivalry dictate that the money be split up almost exactly evenly between the Army, Air Force, and Navy irrespective of need:

As I have noted before (and, I'm sure, will again), the budget has been divvied up this way, plus or minus 2 percent, each and every year since the 1960s. Is it remotely conceivable that our national-security needs coincide so precisely — and so consistently over the span of nearly a half-century — with the bureaucratic imperatives of giving the Army, Air Force, and Navy an even share of the money? Again, the question answers itself. As the Army's budget goes up to meet the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force's and Navy's budgets have to go up by roughly the same share, as well. It would be a miracle if this didn't sire a lot of waste and extravagance.

What's more, as Kevin Drum argues it's not as if this has been accomplished by each service coming up with brilliant-but-expensive ways to fight terrorism. Rather, the rigid budget formula has been matched by rigid adherence to an R&D and procurement process developed in order to fight a large-scale war with a peer competitor like the Soviet Union. When the Cold War ended, you saw some rationale shifting and arguments about the need to to use this stuff to fight China (which has a relatively tiny military establishment, no real capacity to project power, and unlike the Soviet Union isn't really in a contest for global hegemony with the US anyway) and then after 9/11 you still sometimes hear that and you sometimes just get told we need this stuff to fight terrorism.

And of course in a super-simplistic way, it's probably true that all else being equal having an extra F-22 Raptor is better for counter-terrorism purposes than not having it. But in the real world when you add up your F-22s and your missile defense systems and your DDG1000 and your Virgina Class submarines and all the rest little else is equal. This stuff is extremely expensive. So expensive, in fact, that to keep the purchasing order for it we wind up not actually procuring enough of the new equipment to fully replace our old stuff. We could lower our horizons a bit and make due with buying new and only-slightly-improved versions of existing military hardware (which, after all, seems to work pretty well when it's not old and broken) and save tons of money for other priorities.

And don't just blame Bush, of course. Ike Skelton, the top House Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, released a statement yesterday calling Bush's budget request "a good and necessary increase." Meanwhile, proposals embraced by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to increase the number of ground troops in the military could be a good idea if this was done by shifting some spending from these not-so-necessary weapons programs over to manpower needs, but as a pure increase that rather than being offset will drive further increases in Air Force and Navy budgets to preserve the formula it just further entrenches the problem.

At any rate, Fred Kaplan's book, Daydream Believers which is out now, goes into a bunch of this. He also notes that things get even worse when, in essence, policymakers start believing the propaganda associated with this kind of graft-driven endless buildup of equipment. The Bush administration, in particular, as Kaplan argues seems to have pointed out that this seemingly-useless policy of ensuring an ever-widening gap between US technological capabilities and those of any possible adversary must in fact have been super-useful -- maybe it would allow us to totally remake the ground-rules of the international order! Regime change quick and cheap! Why not! Well, we know how that turned out.