A Responsible Budget for a Stronger Defense

A Responsible Budget for a Stronger Defense
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Does the U.S. need to beef up its military capabilities?  You bet.

In just the last few months we have seen North Korean nuclear and missile tests, Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, Iranian intrusions in Iraq and Syria, and continued aggressive threats and actions from Russia.

Small wonder Henry Kissinger says the U.S. faces a “more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.” It’s an increasingly dangerous world—one in which “unpredictable instability has become the ‘new normal,’ as James Clapper, U.S. director of National Intelligence put it last month.

But while the threats to vital U.S. interests have grown, our military power has waned. Today, the U.S. military is smaller than any time since 9/11.

Our Navy has shrunk 14 percent since then. With only 272 ships, it’s our smallest fleet since 1916.

The Marine Corps is down to only 23 infantry battalions, two less than just two years ago and dangerously short of the 36 battalions recommended for a fully capable force.

The Army’s end-strength will fall to only 475,000 active duty troops later this year—making it the smallest U.S. Army since 1940. And, after years of fighting, its equipment is worn and often outdated.

Our Air Force has never had fewer planes under its command. And many of those planes are older than their pilots’ fathers.

In short, not only is our military smaller, it also faces serious readiness and modernization challenges. And it’s all happening for one simple reason: budget cuts.

From 2011 to 2015, the national defense budget shrank by about 25% in inflation adjusted dollars. Last November’s budget deal offered some relief, but defense spending goes down again in real terms in FY2017. In fact, as a percent of GDP, it is $200 billion less per year compared to the average amount invested in national defense over the last 40 years. Meanwhile, since 2001, Russia has increased military spending by 170 percent and the Chinese have more than quadrupled theirs. Reversing the decline of U.S. military strength requires more money.

For FY2017, President Obama has requested $551 billion in base defense spending and another $59 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO). That’s the minimum level dictated by last fall’s budget deal, but less than either President Obama or Congress planned for this year (at $573 billion and $574 billion respectively).

So how much is enough? The Gates budget, endorsed by the bipartisan National Defense Panel, recommended $649 billion for FY 2017 base defense spending. But with the President coming in $100 billion below that and Congressional leadership reluctant to budge from the deal worked out last year, the Gates budget seems a bridge too far.

Last month, however, The Heritage Foundation came up with potentially game-changing proposal. It outlined a budget that boost FY2017 base defense spending to $600 billion, provide another $61 billion of OCO funding for the fight against ISIS and in Afghanistan, and still cut the deficit without raising taxes.

To free up money for much-needed defense investments, the Heritage proposal would reduce spending on less vital non-defense programs and agencies. It identifies more than 100 programs ripe for budget reductions or outright elimination.

Heritage would, for example, drop programs as small as the duplicative USDA Catfish Inspection Program ($14 million annually) and as large as the $1.7 billion Job Corps program, which has been shown to be a waste of taxpayers’ dollars. In all, it identifies $97 billion in cuts to authorized programs and another $29 billion in cuts to unauthorized programs.

Some of the savings would come from non-war-fighting expenses within the defense budget. For example, the think tank would cut commissary subsidies by $322 million and reduce the Defense Department’s non-combat related research programs by $335 million.

Congress has largely abandoned the prudent practice of prioritizing spending. It’s time it got back to the basics. Lawmakers have an obligation to prepare a responsible budget, and a constitutional duty to “provide for the common defense.”

In an increasingly dangerous world, meeting that constitutional responsibility is paramount. National weakness invites aggression. Our weakened military condition—coupled with our withdrawal from critical regions around the world—has emboldened our competitors to exploit situations that should never have been allowed to develop in the first place.

Congress should pass a budget that not only meets our fiscal challenges head-on but strengthens our nation at a time of spreading instability. It can be done.



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