Yesterday, both the New York Times and Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” posted pieces on the growing pressure within Congress to cut defense spending.  And, indeed, both the House and Senate appropriators are well on their way to doing precisely that to the Obama administration’s FY 2011 defense request.  As the general argument goes, with an exploding deficit, the war winding down in Iraq, Obama ready to pull troops out Afghanistan next year, and a decade of what Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called a “gusher” of defense spending, the time is ripe to start paring back the Pentagon’s spending. 

To start with the last point first: There has been no “gusher” when it comes to the baseline defense budget. The Pentagon’s core budget did grow by $228 billion over a decade starting in FY 2001.  But it started from the lowest of the lows; in FY 2001, the defense budget was only $300 billion, a figure that, as a percentage of the country’s GDP (3 percent), was the lowest it had been since World War II.  Even so, the additional $228 billion represents an annual growth rate of only 4 percent, adjusted for inflation.  At the moment, the baseline defense budget, as a percent of GDP, is just 3.6 percent. If one factors in defense-related inflation—a figure that typically outpaces the CPI—then the so-called gusher for defense spending is more like a trickle than not.

Overall defense spending has increased  but, then, we have been at war after all.  Even there, the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (about 1.3 percent of GDP today) has been comparatively less costly than, say, the Korean or Vietnam wars.  Respectively, those wars were an additional 3 percent and 2 percent burden on the GDP.  And, of course, if either had been fought with an all-volunteer force instead of conscripts, the costs for both would have been appreciably more. By any real measure, the American military is doing more with less.

What’s also worrisome is that Congress already seems intent on pocketing the “savings” by an expected drawdown in Afghanistan.  Yet who knows what the 2011 cut in forces will be?  Certainly, as of now, it appears that General Petraeus will need every “boot on the ground” he can find.  Which leads one to wonder whether Congress is planning to use the defense budget process as an indirect, backdoor means to pull the plug on the Afghanistan war.

The country does need to get its fiscal house in order, but not on the backs of the military. Right now, Defense’s share of federal outlays—including those for Iraq and Afghanistan—is 18 percent.  That’s the same level it was at during the Clinton years.  In contrast, mandatory spending eats up some 56 percent of federal spending, while discretionary non-defense spending is 19 percent.  Core entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) is now double that of defense. And while entitlement spending and debt service will continue to explode, the Pentagon’s share of federal spending will be shrinking to 15 percent within the next few years. While the Obama administration has already cut some $300 billion in defense programs, it has been spending nearly $800 billion to (supposedly) stimulate the economy.  The fact is, the  deficit problem has little to do with defense; to paraphrase the Clinton team, “It’s entitlements, stupid.”

If anything, we’re spending too little on defense.  The Congressional Budget Office, for example, has consistently reported that the Defense Department’s current plans would require $40-50 billion more per year in spending than currently budgeted.  There is no question that savings can be made in the Pentagon’s budget. The personnel and healthcare costs associated with our all-volunteer force have skyrocketed and need addressing.  But the largely untold story here is that the so-called “procurement holiday,” which marked much of the Clinton administration’s handling of the defense budget–and about which Republicans used to complain—was a hole that the Bush administration never dug the Pentagon out of.  And now the Obama administration wants to hold defense spending largely flat (or less), resulting in a significant shortfall in what we need to spend to replace an aging and worn-out inventory of planes, ships, and ground vehicles.

Secretary Gates, it is said,  is trying to head off major cuts in defense spending by emphasizing his efforts to gain greater efficiencies in Pentagon operations—showing that the Defense Department is not some sinkhole of wasted federal dollars. But, of course, it was the secretary who, in earlier speeches, seemed to suggest just the opposite by calling the Pentagon a “puzzle palace” and recalling Eisenhower’s fears of an out-of-control military-industrial complex. 

A much better strategy would be to remind everyone that the current planned force structure is largely one put in place by a Democratic administration (Clinton), reaffirmed by a Republican (Bush), and recently reaffirmed by a new administration (Obama) in its Quadrennial Defense Review. There has been a broad, post-Cold War consensus that the United States needs a military at least as large as the one it currently employs—and this even before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  What members of Congress ought to be doing (especially Republicans who claim to be serious about national security) is asking how the administration plans to maintain the forces it says the country will need in the future with the zero-growth Pentagon budgets it has put forward?  And, if it can’t, what does this mean for America’s long-standing posture of global leadership, our commitments abroad and our ability, as the Bush administration put it, to “promote a balance of power that favors freedom”? 

Gary Schmitt is director of AEI’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies.