Smarter Defense Spending

Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Smarter Defense Spending


Jacques S. Gansler's excellent article about the future of defense spending ("Solving the Nation's Security Afford-ability Problem," Issues, Summer 2011) includes two related notions that need a bit of further commentary.

The first, implicit in the sentence "With [the] growth in nondiscretionary expenditures and the need for the nation to borrow ... to pay its tab. ...", is the assumption that the governments resources for defense are inherently limited. Actually, the defense budget now consumes about 5% of gross domestic product (GDP). Characteristically, during the 2001-2008 period, that number was about 4%, but during that time the costs of the two wars we were fighting, in Iraq and Afghanistan, were being kept off budget.

With the wars apparently winding down, and with the federal government's income running on the order of 17 to 18% of GDP as compared with the period 1997-2001 (a period of high prosperity), when it was running between 19 and 21% of GDP, we should at least allow for the possibility that government income could be raised to pay for increased defense spending if necessary.

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This possibility interacts with the second idea in Gansler's letter, that the government "continues to buy ships, airplanes, tanks and other weapons of the 20th century, rather than shifting to the weapons required for the 21st century." The latter are said to be systems suited to asymmetric warfare, including particular kinds of surveillance, unmanned attack, antimissile, and other systems suited to networked military operations against the kinds of enemies we are currently engaging. The problem is that if we focus our defenses on the kind of war we are fighting now, our enemies will come at us from the directions we have left unguarded. There are ample historical examples to illustrate the point.

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During the early times of what became the Cold War, we prepared for a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, and the main threat turned out to be a conventional attack, for which we had to race to prepare (this writer was in the midst of that race for a goodly portion of his career). After World War II, we essentially disarmed while lending material support to help Greece and Turkey fight Soviet-inspired insurgencies, when North Korea attacked across the 38th parallel and pushed us into a forced mobilization for conventional war. With that preparation we were not prepared for Ho Chi Minns variety of "peoples war" in Vietnam--a war we lost mainly because the North Vietnamese were willing to take casualties indefinitely while we were not. And, in September 2001, we had the finest armed forces in the world when a few dedicated terrorists found a hole in our civilian defenses and killed more people on American soil than had been lost in war since the Civil War.

Our problem now is that we don't know where the next threat needing our armed forces will come from. Iran is bidding fair to become a major power in the Middle East, certain to threaten our ally Israel, a newly constituted Iraq, and many other interests in the Arab world. Or a dust-up over Taiwanese independence from China, or a threat China perceives in her surrounding seas, could lead to armed clashes with that country. We know that North Korea continues to plant needles to prick our feet in places such as the offshore areas of South Korea and, it has been reported in the media, in Pakistan. And continuing threats to the sea lanes from variously based pirates require naval forces to stay alert and capable of fast responses. All this while we attempt to disengage from Afghanistan in a war whose origin in 9/11/2001 most of the American public seems to have forgotten. And we must also note that the onset of armed conflict of any kind can come on us suddenly, whereas the preparation to meet a particular kind of conflict, consistent with the development time of systems and training of the armed forces to use them, can take decades.

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