According to some national security analysts and Pentagon officials, including the National Defense Strategy Commission, the sky is falling. The reason is President Trump’s decision to spend $700 billion on the Department of Defense in fiscal year 2020 (which begins in October 2019) instead of the $716 billion it received this year and the $733 billion that it wanted. Yet close analysis reveals that a $700 billion defense budget is more than enough for the military to protect and defend this nation. There are at least five reasons why this is true.
First, this proposed reduction is incredibly small. If it is approved by Congress, the defense budget for fiscal year 2020 will be a “whopping” 2 percent less than in fiscal year 2019 and 4.5 percent below the projected number for next year. Moreover, even in real terms, it will still be higher than at the height of the Reagan buildup and at the peak of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, when America had over 200,000 troops deployed in those theaters.
Second, cutting the top amount for defense, if done in the right way, will actually strengthen our national security because the eliminated funds will go towards slowing the astronomical growth of the federal debt, which, as a percentage of the GDP, is now the highest it’s been since World War II. Military leaders from General Dwight Eisenhower to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Bush and Obama, have said that the debt is a significant threat to national security. Mullen actually recommends thoughtful cuts to the current Pentagon budget to deal with this threat, as has Trump’s own national security advisor, John Bolton. If the growth of the federal debt is not reduced over the next decade, the U.S. will end up spending more on interest payments than on the Pentagon.
Third, the Pentagon has just enjoyed three years of substantial real growth in defense spending. Compared to fiscal year 2016, the last full year of the Obama administration, the annual defense budget has risen by over $100 billion or about 20 percent. While some have argued that this large increase was necessary because of the reductions brought about by the Budget Control Act (BCA), which capped defense spending at its fiscal year 2012 levels, the fact of the matter is that Congress lifted the caps in every year except one, and the Pentagon, with a wink and a nod from Congress, used the Overseas Contingency Fund (OCO) or war fighting budget to get around them. In fact, Congress actually gave the Pentagon about $200 billion in relief between fiscal year 2013 and fiscal year 2017. And the Pentagon used about half of the OCO budget, or another $200 billion, to fund items like the European Reassurance Initiative that have nothing to do with the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Fourth, even at $700 billion, the United States will still spend more on defense than the next seven nations combined, five of which are our allies or partners. And it will spend significantly more than our two strategic competitors, twice as much as China and 10 times more than Russia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Initiative (SIPRI), Chinese defense spending for FY2018 amounted to approximately $230 billion and Russia $66 billion. Even though some would argue that the official accounts of Chinese and Russian defense spending do not show their total national security expenditures, neither do America’s. For example, the fiscal year 2019 number for the U.S. defense budget does not include at least $10 billion in defense-related expenditures by other agencies and another $110 billion in military retirement and tax expenditures. And more importantly, neither China nor Russia have allies like we do in Europe and the Pacific.
Fifth, making a reduction of 2 percent from the current spending level or 4.5 percent from the projected spending level will actually force the Pentagon to become more aggressive in eliminating waste and inefficiency in its bureaucracy, something that they have ignored as their budgets grew, and to reevaluate the unrealistic goals of the individual service. For example, a Defense Business Board report demonstrated that DOD could save some $125 billion over five years by reducing its back office staff. The first audit of any defense entity found that the Defense Logistics Agency could not account for $800 million. The Pentagon could request permission from the Congress to close the 20 percent of its bases that it does not need (something it has not done for over a decade). Or it could implement a RAND report that found that DOD has 10 percent more generals and admirals than it needs.
Similarly, the military could not only cut back on its unrealistic numerical targets for its forces, it could actually reduce its current goals. The Navy wants 355 ships even though the most optimistic budget projections for defense cannot see the Navy growing from its current level of 280 to 326. The Air Force plans to add 92 new tactical air squadrons even though it is currently short 2,000 pilots and its mission capable rates are nowhere near the 80 percent goal Secretary Mattis has ordered. And the Army wants to grow to 540,000 active troops even though it cannot meet its recruiting goals for a force of 480,000. Finally, rather than rebuilding a triad with 1,550 new nuclear weapons, the Pentagon needs no more than a 1,000 warhead dyad, which would save $175 billion.
President Trump should stick to his plan to rein in defense spending and the Pentagon should be more than happy with a $700 billion budget. If it manages it correctly, it will be more than enough to provide for the common defense and deal with the likely threats to our national security.
Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as assistant secretary of defense (manpower, reserve affairs, installations, and logistics) from 1981 through 1985.