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In a new article in the Christian Science Monitor, “Pentagon cuts don’t cut it. Want to really save money? Get a new security strategy”, Independent Institute Senior Fellow Charles V. Peña shows that the proposal by Obama administration Defense Secretary Robert Gates of “cuts” in spending by the Department of Defense are not cuts at all but simply reductions in projected increased spending.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently announced that the Department of Defense (DoD) had found “at least $100 billion in savings” and that he was “curtailing or canceling troubled or excess programs that would have cost more than $300 billion if seen through to completion.” President Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, echoed Gates’ proposal to cut defense spending. These “cuts,” however, should not be confused with an actual, immediate reduction in current defense spending.
What these cuts really represent is the projected savings that would be gained over the next five years by not growing the existing budget. This plan is really just a commitment not to spend more money in the future; it’s not a plan to actually spend less money this year than last year, or even to keep spending at the same level. In fact, Mr.Gates was clear on that point. And to be sure, he should be commended for exercising some fiscal restraint (something DoD isn’t usually known for)—particularly during continued uncertainty about economic recovery. But as defense spending continues to amass nearly half of federal discretionary spending, his proposal is hardly cause for celebration.
‘Efficiency savings’ vs. real cuts
To begin, a little perspective is in order.
In 2012, the DoD’s base budget for the fiscal year (FY) will be $553 billion (excluding roughly $150 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan). This is $13 billion less than the department originally projected, but still represents close to 3 percent real growth from last year’s budget. The Gates plan aims at further reduction in FY 2013 and FY 2014 to finally arrive at zero real growth in FY 2015 and FY 2016.
If a hypothetical zero growth DoD budget averages $550 billion a year, then the average savings per year is $20 billion. This is a lot of money, but still less than 4 percent of the total military budget. A step in the right direction? Yes, but hardly a windfall – and not a real reduction, but simply not growing the budget to not spend $20 billion on some things, to be able to spend $20 billion on something else.
US defense spending out of whack
The $600-plus billion a year the US spends on defense is roughly what the entire rest of the world combined spends on defense—yet the entire world isn’t our enemy or a military threat. China is often cited as the next big threat on the horizon, but the US still significantly outspends the Chinese on defense. Moreover, with wealthy allies such as Japan and South Korea, why does the US alone have to shoulder the burden of the Chinese challenge (assuming China is indeed a future threat)? And why do we wring our hands in great angst over North Korea and Iran when US defense spending is larger than the gross domestic product (GDP) of either country? (In fact, it eclipses the GDP of all but about 20 of the richest countries in the world).
The real story behind Gates’ plan is that as long as post-cold war foreign policy remains on autopilot, we will continue to have unnecessarily large defense budgets. The reality is that our nation could spend significantly less and still be secure. America is in a favorable geostrategic position with friendly countries to the north and south and two vast oceans on our flanks. We do not need—as we did during the cold war—forward deployed military forces around the world to be secure. (Even before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of the more than 1 million active duty military nearly, 250,000 were deployed overseas).
Leave cold-war deployment strategies
We no longer need to contain the Soviet Union and there is no global-hegemonic, rival-superpower as its equivalent successor. . . .