Commentary: Is the U.S. Defense Budget Efficient?
May 15, 2009

When the U.S. government attempts to provide for the common defense, dollars are, in effect, policy. Planning becomes irrelevant and operations difficult, if the proper mixture of manpower and equipment is not funded. For example, spending the majority of the budget on Cold War weapons, like sophisticated fighters or open ocean ships, makes it difficult to wage an effective counterinsurgency campaign. Therefore, the release of the annual defense budget normally means the beginning of a vigorous debate between the two political parties and the executive and legislative branches of government about the future directions of defense policy. This is particularly true when an incoming administration presents its first defense budget to the Congress and the public, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did on 6 April 2009.

When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the only person to have been kept on as Secretary of Defense by an incoming administration headed by a president of an opposition party, announced the changes he will propose to the Congress in the fiscal year 2010 defense budget, his proposal was criticized by some as a defense cut that will undermine our national security by emboldening our enemies and undermining our allies, and worsen our economic woes. One Republican lawmaker, Saxby Chambliss, a Republican Senator from Georgia, went so far as to argue that the Obama administration is “willing to sacrifice the lives of American military men and women for the sake of domestic programs favored by President Obama.” But such criticisms are off the mark.

Gates actually proposed a $21 billion, or 4 percent, increase in the defense budget (not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Moreover, the amount he requested, $534 billion, is $10 billion more than the outgoing Bush administration projected would be needed for defense spending in fiscal year 2010.

Moreover, when one adds the $130 billion that will be spent to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, total U.S. defense spending for FY2010 will amount to $664 billion. In real dollars, this is the highest level of defense spending since World War II and exceeds what the rest of the world spends on defense combined.

More importantly, Gates’ changes in the distribution of defense funds will actually increase our national security. The Secretary terminated production of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor fighter plane, the Navy’s DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer, the Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser aircraft and Multiple Kill Vehicle programs, and the vehicle component of the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS). All of these programs either dealt with threats from a bygone era (the F-22 and the DDG-1000) or were troubled programs that exceeded their projected costs and were way behind schedule (the Airborne Laser, the Multiple Kill Vehicle, and FCS).

Gates shifted funds saved from these questionable systems into programs that are more relevant in dealing with contemporary threats. Instead of building more than 187 of the F-22s, which were originally designed to combat Soviet air threats, the Pentagon will be spending more for drones, like the Predator, and more for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will be used not only by all of the armed services, but by many of our NATO allies as well.

Similarly, by building only three, instead of 10, of the costly DDG-1000s, the Navy will be able to build another 20 DDG-51s for less than half the price of the DDG-1000s and build 55 Littoral Combat Ships – small fast vessels useful in counterinsurgency and counterpiracy operations because they are capable of navigating in shallow waters close to shore.

Moreover, canceling the vehicle component of the Army’s FCS program will enable the Army to provide more vehicles like the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP), which has proven so resistant to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, canceling the troubled Airborne Laser and Multiple Kill Vehicle programs will free up funds for theater defense systems like THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense System), which are needed to protect our troops in the field and our allies from attacks from rogue states.

Nor will these cuts cause more unemployment. In fact, Gates’ proposed changes will actually increase the number of men and women employed in the aerospace industry. For example, the number of people directly employed in producing the F-22 for Lockheed Martin now numbers 24,000. As a result of the termination of the F-22, the number will drop to 11,000 by the end of 2011, when the economy is expected to rebound. But during that same period, the number of people working for Lockheed Martin on the F-35 will increase from 38,000 to 82,000, thus providing a net gain of more than 40,000 workers. Similarly, workers who would have been involved in producing the DDG-1000 can largely transition to the DDG-51.

The opponents of Gates’ new direction will not go down without a fight. Over 200 members of the House and 44 Senators have signed a letter to President Obama urging him to produce at least 60 more F-22s, and six Senators have written to the President asking him to reconsider the ­proposed cuts in missile defense. Unfortunately, these opponents do not have logic on their side.

A former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2009