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Keeping The Fire Hot: On US Defense Spending

Earlier this February, incumbent Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced a series of extensive cuts to the United States’ military budget which would progressively scale back overall spending by nearly $210 billion. In real terms, the Department of Defense is requesting $135.2 billion from Congress to sustain the next fiscal year’s military budget, which economic analysts at the Visual DoD note “is the lowest request since 2008”. Military budget expert Andrew Tilghman estimates that the proposed reduction “sheds about 36,700 troops from across the force, bringing the total size of the active-duty component down to about 1.31 million.” Aside from significant decreases in on-duty and reserve personnel, these cuts also detract considerable resources from other crucial areas such as operational training, weapon purchases, and research & development. Similarly, less funding forces the Department of Defense to further cap troop pay raises, reduce health care and benefit access to veterans, and cut commissary subsidies which in effect harm both active personnel and retirees. Rep. Howard McKeon from California, current Chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, remarked that “these moves are the consequence of trying to resolve our fiscal problems on the backs of our troops.” Essentially, the solution to the United States’ economic woes should not come at the price of undermining troop care and overall preparedness. As such, extensive, across the board cuts to military spending has considerably negative implications in regards to efficiency, personnel care, and the grander macroeconomic health of the United States.

            Historically speaking, the size and extent of the defense budget has been the subject of heated controversy. The motivations of policymakers who wish to shrink spending do so in the name of reducing what they perceive to be “superfluous, unnecessary expenditures”. However, consistent trends over the course of the past century indicate that sharp reductions in spending undermine security and ultimately require much larger increases in spending later on to compensate for the losses. For instance, in 1947 President Harry Truman reduced the military budget by nearly 30% following the Second World War, justifying the reduction by stating that such expenditures were no longer necessary. Consequently, the rapid militarization of the Soviet Union and Communist China which took place in lieu of Truman’s cuts heightened aggressions on the Korean peninsula, which would eventually culminate into a full scale conflict. Truman then increased spending nearly six-fold, bumping up spending from $9.1 billion to $52.8 billion in 1948. Other examples, such as Reagan’s drastic budget increases following military defunding earlier in 1972, up to President Bush’s near $300 billion budget increase in spending to wage the War on Terror following the September 11th attacks, all speak to consistently irresponsible policy management. In other words, sharp reductions as opposed to consistent, balanced spending ultimately mandates enormous expenditure increases to combat imminent threats when they arise. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta states that “ If sequester goes into effect, and we have to do the kind of cuts that will go right at readiness, right at maintenance, right at training, we are going to weaken the United States […] making it much more difficult to respond to crises in the world.” Aside from efficiency, large cuts undermine various components of security capabilities throughout the military. According to James Inhofe at CNN, the Air Force estimates that if extensive cuts go into effect, nearly two-thirds of its aircrews would not receive necessary training hours to keep them “mission-capable”. Likewise, the Department of the Army projects that nearly 80% of its combat brigades would “be forced to skip necessary combat training”, while an additional 250,000 troops could be dismissed from the service due to layoffs. General Martin Dempsey, Joint Chief of Staff for the Army, goes further in his testimony before the House Armed Service Committee, stating that cuts would “force our military onto a path that is so degraded and unready […] that it would be immoral to use the force.” When considering this, it is important to understand that the ultimate hindrance that comes out of all this is combat readiness. Lisa Rein at the Washington Post explains that the $24 billion in reductions set to take place in the last seven months of the fiscal year could potentially mean leaving certain active units in Afghanistan months beyond their exit dates, specifically due to a severe lack of combat ready soldiers. At the end of the day, it becomes a choice of leaving combat exhausted units to “hold down the front” overseas, or sending undertrained and underequipped troops into harm’s way. General Ray Odierno further explains this, saying that “they will go in with a hell of a lot less capability. That means mistakes will be made. That means we’ll have accidents. That means we’ll be more likely to be shot down by enemy fire.”

Amidst other grander issues, the ones who suffer directly from extensive budgetary cuts are the actual active duty personnel and veterans themselves. Brendan McGarry notes in his report regarding US military wage and benefits that current proposals, which consume a rising share of defense spending, include limiting soldier pay raises to 1%, reducing housing allowances by 5%, and cutting an approximate $1 billion in commissary subsidies. These immediate and direct harms will ultimately translate into higher health care costs and decreased access to military entitlements for troops and retirees. Aside from egregiously depriving soldiers of basic benefits, creating more stringent caps on pay raises “undermines retention and readiness”, as less and less soldiers are willing to serve due to lack of incentive. To put this in perspective, consider the fact that military pay growth staggers hopelessly behind private sector pay. This is not to say that a rifleman should make the same salary as a corporate executive. Rather, it means that the rate at which a soldier’s pay increases, regardless of positive performance, grows at a substantially slower rate due to budget constraints. Logically, this coincides directly with decreased efficiency and retention. Similar issues arise regarding health care costs, which also increase as a direct result of cuts. Despite the Department’s effort to modernize the Tricare system by consolidating plans and adjusting co-pays and deductibles, health care costs will skyrocket over the course of the next decade. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Department of Defense’s healthcare costs will rise from $49 billion in 2014 to $70 billion in 2028, effectively increasing the cost by nearly 40%. As the study clearly points out, “if the department’s overall budget can increase only slowly, continued rapid growth in military health care costs could force DoD to reduce spending in other areas, such as force structure, military readiness, and weapons modernization.” In more grounded terms, every additional dollar spent on increased health costs means less overall that can be spent on necessary training and equipment. Due to rising costs, simply because of reduced funds from the overall budget, both retirees and active service members must contribute an additional 18% to retain their benefits.

While many proponents of slashing the defense budget surmise that cuts are absolutely necessary to ensure the economic health of the United States, military expenditures are by no means the driving force of the nation’s indefensible debt. According to CNN, the United States spends less than 18% of the budget on the military while “mandatory domestic spending accounts for 60%.” The real issue then becomes the partisan quibbling regarding how to reform mandatory domestic spending. Stephen Fuller, a respected economist at the Aerospace Industries Association, finds that long term GDP growth would decline by nearly $215 billion should the proposed sequestration take effect. Similarly, given the vast population of employees associated with various areas of the military (production, manufacture, service, etc.), nearly 2.14 million jobs and of $109.4 billion in personal earnings become at risk, simply due to shrinkage. The logical warrant supporting Fuller’s assessment lies in the fact that the vast size and technological intricacies of the US military play a prevalent and vital role in the modern economy. The Bureau of Economic Analysis further corroborates this assessment, noting that tighter budget constraints accounted for nearly half a percentage point of economic growth lost during the first quarter of the fiscal year. Major manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin, have experienced 20% smaller workforces directly as a result of decreased development and manufacturing spending. These cuts, essentially, hit these industries in states such as Arizona and Missouri particularly hard, as hundreds of thousands rely on these industries for viable employment opportunities.

In light of the various harms associated with blindly cutting the military budget, serious questions must be considered by elected officials in the coming months. In other words, policymakers must take into account the economic and security consequences that result from limiting our nation’s military budget. Similarly, the alleged solution to the United States’ economic woes should not come at the expense of depriving soldiers of essential benefits. Essentially, failing to do so greatly undermines the efficiency and capacity required to combat national security threats. Growing political turmoil in the Middle East, along with aggressive military action in Eastern Europe, warrant sustaining a strong, well-resourced military force, should United States’ intervention, in the name of national security, be needed. As such, in order to preserve our nation’s distinctive identity as an economic and military power, able and ready to wage war against our enemies, across the board cuts to defense expenditures must be avoided at all costs.



One thought on “Keeping The Fire Hot: On US Defense Spending Leave a comment

  1. I’m sure most of the politicians voting to cut military spending are the first to wave the flags whenever a mention of “the troops” comes up.

    Liked by 1 person

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