By Charles V. Peña
The Trump administration recently revealed its proposed defense budget for 2018, asking for roughly $639 billion — some $574 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget and another $65 billion for overseas contingency operations, i.e., military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is almost 10 percent more than President Obama’s request last year, but only 3 percent more than what the Obama administration said it would request for 2018. As such, many defense hawks are criticizing the budget request as not enough. Some lament it is less than 4 percent of gross domestic product compared to the nearly 7 percent of GDP at the height of the Reagan defense buildup during the Cold War.
But how much we should spend on defense is not a function of the prior year budget or GDP. It is a function of threats and military requirements to deter or defeat those threats.
In the post-Cold War world, the United States is in a relatively safe geo-strategic position. Although Russia still possesses nuclear weapons that could threaten the U.S. homeland, our strategic nuclear arsenal acts as powerful deterrent for Russia, China and North Korea. And the U.S. is fortunate to have friendly neighbors to the north and south, as well as two large oceans on its flanks. As such, the threat of military invasion is relatively small.
The reality is that in constant dollars what we’re currently spending on defense is on par with what we spent at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, yet we’re not confronting a threat anywhere near the level of that posed by the Soviet Union. So where is all the money going?
The truth is that defense spending is largely on autopilot. In fact, acting Pentagon Comptroller John Roth has admitted that proposed FY 18 defense spending is “not informed by strategy and it’s not informed by policy.” While it is unrealistic that a new administration would have written new security and defense strategies this early in its term, the fact that the administration does not have policy and strategy to guide and inform spending is telling. It’s a little bit like what Yogi Berra once said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”
Absent policy or strategy, one area of common agreement is that the military will need to be refurbished after more than a decade of ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. How much that will cost is debatable. But instead of a defense budget that’s simply, according to Roth, a “significant increased commitment” — especially since we don’t know how the Pentagon currently spends its $600-plus billion budget — we should be examining how to free up defense resources to pay for replenishing the military.
And the best places to start are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a legitimate military response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks after the Taliban refused to give up Osama bin Laden. But bin Laden was killed in 2011, and Afghanistan has become a nation-building mission with no end in sight.
Iraq, on the other hand, was an unnecessary military intervention from the beginning, and another futile exercise in regime change followed by expensive nation-building. Along with military operations against Syria, that’s $65 billion to be saved.
According to an internal study commissioned by the Pentagon — but one they chose to ignore — there’s something like another $125 billion in annual administrative waste in business operations that DoD can save.
So before we decide to spend more, we need to better spend what we’re spending now. And any spending must be guided a sound strategy. President Trump campaigned on the slogan “America First.” He needs to articulate what that means in terms of national security before any increase in defense spending. A good start would be focusing on defending America against external threats (of which, there are few) and stop being the world’s policeman. He should have allies take primary responsibility for their own security, and end regime change and nation-building, especially in the Middle East.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities, a think tank dedicated to strong but responsible use of the U.S. military. He is also the former director of defense studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on June 13, 2017. Read more HERE.