U.S. Military Spending: A Survey of Analysis and Critique

By Kuhn, James C., IV; Akers, Stanley et al. | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

U.S. Military Spending: A Survey of Analysis and Critique


Kuhn, James C., IV, Akers, Stanley, Stankus, Tony, Reference & User Services Quarterly


Since 1990, the U.S. military establishment has downsized its force structure and overhead expenses through, among other means, domestic and overseas base closings, reductions in the number of active-duty army and marine divisions and air force tactical wings, and decommissioning of aircraft carriers and long-range bombers. While defense spending of a decade ago amounted to 6 percent of the gross domestic product (GPD), fiscal 1998 defense spending (about $266 billion) will amount to roughly 3 percent of the GDP.[1] But one estimate put military spending in 1995 as 50 percent higher, if measured in constant dollars, than in 1980, before the Reagan-era arms buildup.[2] And while a joint budget resolution adopted by Congress in June of 1995 called for decreases between 1995 and 2002 amounting to $30 billion in discretionary domestic funding, it also called for increases in military expenditures for the same period amounting to $19 billion.[3] While cutting military spending, subsequent federal budgets since 1995 have not cut defense spending at rates anywhere near the percentages cut from other budgetary areas, particularly spending on social services.

Narrowly rejected by the Senate in 1995, the idea of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution was derailed again in 1997. On the other hand, 1997 saw the Clinton White House and the GOP teaming up on a plan to fully eliminate the federal deficit by the year 2002.[4] Yet, for all the inside-the-Beltway discussion over the past few years regarding balancing our federal budget and reducing the federal debt, remarkably few of those conversations were devoted seriously to the issue of reducing defense spending. In the words of a recent National Review columnist, "[B]oth tree-hugging liberals and budget-conscious conservatives are captivated by the rewards of the mystical peace dividend."[5] Nevertheless, it is likely that talk of increasing the Pentagon's budget will not be far behind recent news of a faster-than-projected shrinking of the deficit and, for the first time in about thirty years, a possible budgetary surplus.

Debates about what sort of military the world's only remaining superpower should maintain and to what levels it should be funded are quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) occurring both within the Pentagon and outside the military.[6] Interservice debates about what sorts of weapons systems or force levels will best defend our interests have perennially raged, with army, air force, and navy all jockeying for a greater piece of the budgetary pie. Meanwhile, congressional budget cutters and deficit hawks have tended to focus on specific line items, such as the closing of specifically named bases, or specific projects, such as the B-2 Stealth Bomber, Seawolf nuclear attack submarine, or C-17 Globemaster 3 transport plane. On the other hand, those politicians with military contractors in their home districts or votes to secure often cite the need to maintain an "industrial base" as an appropriate reason to order up more military hardware. But with politicians on both sides of the aisle calling (slightly) more often these days for an end to military "pork," the Defense Department, military contractors, and some (but not all) strategists have been jockeying for positions that justify continued and increased spending.

For example, the Department of Defense's (DOD) "Bottom-Up Review" concluded in 1993 that our national defense strategy had to accommodate the probability of unilaterally and simultaneously fighting and winning two separate regional wars, a conclusion recently labeled as "obsolete" by the congressionally appointed National Defense Panel.[7] Regardless of the dubious merits of the argument, the Bottom-Up Review's anticipation of a major post-Cold War threat to national security was used to justify spending per capita on "readiness" (training and maintenance) at levels higher than during the Cold War.[8] As another example, a widely touted "Revolution in Military Affairs" that looks for future wars to be fought using information and surveillance technology, along with stealth and "intelligent" weaponry, will only require more spending on the sort of high-tech weaponry that was widely used and field-tested in the Gulf War. …

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