In May of last year, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) introduced a bill called the “War is Making You Poor Act.”

The bill proposed to slash the $159 billion of “supplementary spending” in the defense budget that pays for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mandating that the Pentagon instead pay for the wars out of its $549 billion base budget. Grayson’s bill did not call for ending the war(s) per se, but sought to draw attention to their enormous price tag by calling for a cut identical in size to their annual costs.

But the title of Grayson’s bill, if not the substance, was misleading. The cost of fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—while undoubtedly enormous—is only a fraction of a defense budget that sustains America’s ambitious goals of global security. If the war is making you poor, it is doing so as merely a fraction of total defense spending.

Since Grayson introduced his bill, calls for cutting defense have grown louder on both sides of the aisle, continued GOP discomfort with defense cuts notwithstanding. Something of a consensus is emerging that the Pentagon will have to share in the nation’s collective belt-tightening—President Obama has asked the Pentagon to come up with $400 billion in savings in the next decade. What this will look like is far from clear. As budget hawks look for savings in the Pentagon’s budget, they cannot count on merely reaping a “peace dividend” from the drawdown of the wars. Nor will trimming waste here and there lead to meaningful cuts. Sorely missing, and urgently needed, is meaningful debate about the risks and rewards of reducing our global footprint.

The Constitution charges the federal government with providing for the common defense. Since World War II, Democrat and Republican-controlled governments alike have interpreted this task to require not merely deterring attack on the homeland, but projecting power in every corner of the globe from a worldwide network of bases and fleets. This is an expensive undertaking, one for which the United States budgeted approximately half of all discretionary spending.

A lot, but not all, of this enormous spending is due to the wars. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) estimates that half of the growth in defense spending over the last ten years came not from war spending, but from the Pentagon’s base budget—or “peacetime” spending that would occur irrespective of the wars. In Fiscal Year 2011, the Obama Administration requested $159 billion in war spending, and $549 billion for the base budget—even greater than the previous peak of $517 billion under Reagan. Todd Harrison of the CSBA calculates that if we add defense-related spending in other departments—$19 billion of atomic weaponry spending in the Department of Energy, $122 billion for veterans, and $8 billion in other agencies including foreign military aid distributed through the State Department, the total defense budget for FY 2011 was $861 billion. The $159 billion in war spending Rep. Grayson was talking about cutting, then, makes up less than a fifth of total defense spending.

Where the Money Goes

Defense spending is a fuzzy notion for most voters. When Americans debate domestic spending, we can talk about health insurance and Social Security, programs that many Americans use in our day-to-day lives. But when we hear pundits and politicians debate defense, we hear more hazy terms like “vital interests” and “global posture.” The mission of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean is much more abstract and removed from the everyday experience of Americans than the purpose of a Social Security check. That less than 10% of Americans have military experience, and less than 1% have a family member currently serving on active duty, does not help.

Defense spending reaches far beyond conventional wars and the defense of the U.S. from bombing, invasion, or blockade. Right now, an attack on the U.S. by another nation is inconceivable, despite what the popular Modern Warfare video game series would have you believe. Terrorism is the biggest threat to the American homeland. In the literal sense of “defense,” then, defense spending might actually be the budget of the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, and the like.

The Department of Defense, however, has long operated under a much broader notion of what the defense of the U.S. requires. Dr. Sam Perlo-Freedman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told ARUSA, “The US perceives its security in far more expansive terms than deterring an attack on its homeland or on its allies. The US sees its security as requiring it to be able, potentially, to intervene virtually anywhere in the world, to make events happen in the way that the US wants them to happen.” He continued, “That’s a level of ambition that’s not shared by any other country in the world.”

Such global military ambitions require vast manpower. The US fields an all-volunteer professional military without peer: approximately 1.4 million soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines equipped with the world’s best weapons. The simplest way to break down the complex tangle of expenditures needed to maintain such a force, explains Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, is the Pentagon’s own division of accounts. The Department of Defense’s four different major accounts are Personnel; Operations and Maintenance; Procurement; and Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation (RDT&E, often simply R&D).

In our all-volunteer military, personnel makes up a large share of the budget: paying the salaries, health benefits, retirement accrual pay, and housing allowances for service members. These personnel expenses make up about $125 billion of the FY2011 base budget of $550 billion, O’Hanlon explained. The Operations and Maintenance budget is close to $200 billion a year. Idiosyncratically, though, half of the O&M budget is more akin to Personnel—it pays the seven hundred thousand full-time civilian employees of the Department of Defense, as well as the contractors who render their services, security and otherwise, in theaters of war.

All those people need equipment. The other half of Operations and Maintenance money goes to maintaining equipment: spare parts, fuel, repairs. Procurement goes towards buying, and R&D towards inventing and testing, new weapons for the “arsenal of democracy:” from firearms, bullets, and radios, to aircraft carriers, jets, and satellite weapons.

Two points become apparent from a closer look at the Pentagon’s budget. First, the US spends an enormous amount on defense even apart from the wars we are currently fighting. Second, despite the unarguably high amount of waste associated with many Pentagon programs, there is no line item in the defense budget that reads, “WASTE – cut here for deficit reduction.” Cutting defense means more than winding down the wars and cutting waste. It will involve hard choices about how and where to reduce our military capabilities—choices that are consistently obscured by all sides of the budget fights.

Several statistics are frequently abused in budget debates. Hawks like to argue against cutting defense spending by pointing out that it is a mere 4% of the GDP, well below the post-WWII average of 6.4%. While true, this fact is a red herring. No other part of the federal budget is determined or defended simply by its share of GDP—ideally, spending is evaluated according to need. On the other hand, doves point out that spending is at higher levels than during the Vietnam War, the Korean War, or the Reagan arms buildup. This is also true—and irrelevant to the budget debate for the same reason: it does not peg defense to a reasonable assessment of what the U.S. needs to defend itself from attack today.

Another fact: the U.S. and our allies account for 70% of the world’s military spending. Our strategic advantage is even greater when compared to our rivals’ capabilities. The following statements and figures, offered by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2010, remain the most striking examples of our dominance:

  • The US operates 11 large [aircraft] carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.
  • The US Navy has 10 large-deck amphibious ships that can operate as sea bases for helicopters and vertical-takeoff jets. No other navy has more than three. Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined.
  • The US has 57 nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines—again, more than the rest of the world combined.
  • In terms of total missile firepower, the US arguably outmatches the next 20 largest navies.
  • All told, the displacement of the US battle fleet—a proxy for overall fleet capabilities—exceeds, by one recent estimate, at least the next 13 navies combined, of which 11 are our allies or partners.
  • And, at 202,000 strong, the Marine Corps is the largest military force of its kind in the world and exceeds the size of most world armies.

The U.S.’s current overmatch of any potential rivals should decisively discredit warnings of a “hollow force.” But those who favor a more robust defense budget point out that our spending relative to other countries does not guarantee that we can meet our goals.  Max Boot wrote this January in the Weekly Standard, “U.S. defense spending remains far higher than China’s and our defense capabilities remain far greater than China’s or anyone else’s. But our commitments are also much greater. We have to worry about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, China, Russia, North Korea, Yemen, Somalia, al Qaeda, and myriad other current or potential threats, whereas China can devote all of its might to the western Pacific.”

Boot’s line of reasoning demonstrates that the US can justify theoretically limitless defense spending if it assumes that its security requires the ability to intervene anywhere in the world. Any real debate about defense will require the tough choices about where, and how, we should scale back these capabilities.

As the budget fights continue, any real debate about defense must extend beyond the wars and waste. It must soberly assess what goals the U.S. should pursue in the world and how much is needed to meet such goals. Such clear-eyed debate is hard, thought not impossible, to come by—and ever more important as budget woes and global instability usher in the second decade after 9/11.

Design by Melissa Wong

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