Make strategic choices before increasing defense spending

By Charles V. Peña

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has proposed boosting the Pentagon’s budget by nearly a half trillion dollars over the next five years. His plan calls for a $54 billion increase in fiscal year 2018 to $640 billion. Add to that some $60 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO). Sen. McCain advocates including OCO funding in future defense budgets – as it should have been all along – which would top out at more than $800 billion in fiscal year 2022. As a point of reference, at the height of the Cold War during the Reagan buildup we were spending the equivalent of $600 billion in current dollars to deter and contain the Soviet Union. In a world without that threat or any equivalent threat, we need to ask why the more than $600 billion we’re currently spending isn’t enough and why we would need to increase that to $800 billion.

According to Sen. McCain, “For too long, we have allowed budget constraints to drive strategy.” He is right to argue that strategy should drive budget. And that “[i]t is time to turn this around and return to the first order question: What do we need our military to do for the nation?”

Sen. McCain argues that we need military “to deter aggression and conflict.” But this is the same sweeping neoconservative and liberal internationalist rhetoric American voters rejected in the recent election.

Every conflict or act of aggression in the world is not a direct threat to U.S. national security. The problem with Sen. McCain’s logic is that he views every crisis as the same, and it’s not possible to distinguish between those that are true threats and those that aren’t – which is a prescription for endless military intervention.

First and foremost, we need a military to deter and defend against direct threats to the United States and the American way of life. Currently, there is one such threat: Russia’s nuclear arsenal. So to the extent that we need to modernize our nuclear arsenal to ensure it is a deterrent, we need to do that. We must also maintain our ability to deter China, North Korea, or any other country that may eventually acquire nuclear weapons.

And why should we assume that we need to spend $60 billion a year for the next five years for overseas military operations, such as Syria and Iraq? Bashar al-Assad is a thug and threat to his own people, but the regime in Damascus does not pose a threat to American security. Our involvement has predictably but unintentionally prolonged civil war and armed less-than-savory elements on various sides of this complicated tragedy. ISIS should be defeated, but as the Kurdish forces and other opposition rebels have shown, it’s a scourge that can be delt with by those in the region and more directly at risk of their radical ideology.. Our strategic partners in the region should do more to lead the fight against it. After all, they have more at stake and the most to lose by letting ISIS gain a stronghold. We need not risk more American lives and spend more money on these needless military interventions.

China is a rising power seeking to assert itself in its own backyard, but not a conventional threat to the U.S. homeland. So China bears close watching, but we should not engage in actions that unnecessarily provoke Bejing. For example, unless China makes moves to close trade routes in the South China Sea, we should not risk military confrontation over artificial sandbars in the Spratlys.

North Korea and Iran both represent potential flashpoints that the U.S. must contend with. Even a nuclear North Korea must face up to the realities of deterrence – the vastly superior U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal is capable of utter destruction of not just Pyongyang but the entire DPRK. Unless, of course, Kim Jong-un is suicidal, but – like his father before him – he seems more interested in self-preservation and self-indulgence. The same can be said for the mullahs in Tehran if Iran ever becomes a nuclear power.

Moreover, the U.S. has rich allies that are more than capable of shouldering their share of the burden to defend against threats in their regions of the world. It is in both our and their interests that they step up to the plate. The combined economies of NATO’s European countries exceeds that of the U.S. and they outspend Russia by nearly 4-to-1 on defense. Japan and North Korea are two of the largest economies in the world compared to North Korea, which is one of the world’s poorest. To provide some perspective, Vermont’s economy -- which is the smallest state economy in the United States – is nearly twice as large as North Korea’s.

Finally, how can Sen. McCain argue that we need to spend more on defense without a top-to-bottom audit of the Pentagon to know how DoD is spending more than $600 billion now? Before we decide to spend more, we need to know that what we’re spending now is being spent wisely. We already know it isn’t. An internal study commissioned by the Pentagon – but that they chose to ignore – discovered that DoD has something like $25 billion in annual administrative waste in its business operations.

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute.

This piece was originally published by Business Insider on January 25, 2017. Read more HERE.