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A long overdue discussion on Pentagon spending

A long overdue discussion on Pentagon spending
© Greg Nash

In a series of interviews this month, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithCongress set for chaotic year-end sprint Trump rails against Twitter in late night tweets The pandemic and a 'rainy day fund' for American charity MORE (D-Wash.) expressed an openness to making modest reductions in the Pentagon’s near-record $740 billion budget, but he has also stated he is “unconvinced” by progressive calls for more substantial cuts. One of his key arguments has been that we can’t reduce Pentagon spending without a “conversation about what’s the strategy, what’s the plan going forward.” 

It’s long past time to have that conversation. One contribution has already been made by the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force (SDTF), a group of former White House, congressional and Pentagon budget officials, retired military officers and think tank experts from across the political spectrum that we co-chaired. The task force has set out a blueprint for saving over $1.2 trillion over the next decade by taking a more realistic view of the challenges posed by Russia and China, cutting the size of the armed forces, ending endless wars, rolling back the Pentagon’s costly and dangerous nuclear weapons buildup, reviving nuclear arms control and cutting back the department’s employment of private contractors. Given a more sensible strategy and a thorough effort to scrutinize misguided and wasteful spending, America and its allies can be made safer for less.

The discussion of Pentagon spending must be grounded in a realization that military force is not the answer to the most urgent challenges we face, as the global pandemic has made abundantly clear. The SDTF made this point in its June 2019 report:

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“[T]he most urgent risks to U.S. security are non-military . . . They include climate change, which undermines frontiers, leads to unpredictable extreme weather, and fosters uncontrollable migration; cyber-attacks and cyber offensive operations, which undermine the credibility of the internet and pose challenges to infrastructure security; global disease epidemics, which pose societal risks to all nations; and income and wealth gaps, which foster insecurity and conflict.”

As the SDTF report notes, it’s important to remember that current Pentagon spending is close to its highest level since World War II. Adjusted for inflation, the current budget of $740 billion is well over $100 billion more than expenditures at the high point of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, and a full 50 percent higher than during the height of the Vietnam and Korean Wars. It has been said that Pentagon spending could be “flat” for the next few years, but it would be flat only in the sense that the peak of Mount Everest is flat. A budget of $700-billion plus would be fat, not flat, compared to most other budgets during the 75 years since the end of World War II. 

As for specific reductions in the Pentagon budget, the SDTF would start by reducing active duty military personnel by roughly 10 percent while reducing overseas troop deployments by more than one-third. These are reasonable and in fact fairly conservative changes in the context of cutting back the U.S. capacity to engage in endless wars, relying more on allies in Asia and Europe, and right sizing the Navy from a force designed to be everywhere all the time to one that can surge into areas of tension if needed.

A key to reducing troop levels is a recognition that the challenges posed by China, Russia and Iran do not require greater Pentagon spending. The challenges from China are primarily political and economic, not military. And, there are areas like climate change and combatting pandemics where cooperation between Washington and Beijing is essential. As for Russia, it spends only one-third as much on its military as America’s European allies, and its economy is smaller than Italy’s. Europe can take on more of the work of deterring Russia. As for Iran, relying on diplomacy rather than military threats is the best way to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and doing so could be part of a plan to reduce the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. 

Another area for savings is in ending the Pentagon’s plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, land-based missiles and nuclear warheads at a cost of up to $2 trillion over the next two decades. Current U.S. forces are more than adequate to dissuade any nation from attacking the United States and its allies. The organization Global Zero has conducted an alternative nuclear posture review that articulates a “deterrence only” nuclear strategy that would reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal while forgoing the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization program.

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Finally, the Pentagon employs an astonishing 600,000 contractors, many of whom do jobs that overlap with work already being done by government employees. Cutting spending on these contractors by 15 percent could save hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 10 years.

Thankfully, although he has expressed skepticism, Chairman Smith is open to further discussion on how much Pentagon spending is needed to protect us, as he noted in a recent meeting with the organization Win Without War. Let the discussion begin.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy (CIP). Ben Freeman runs CIP’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative. They are co-directors of CIP’s Sustainable Defense Task Force.