Meeting U.S. National Security Goals — And Paying For Them Too

Our guest blogger is Sarah Jacobs, an intern with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress.

The F-22

The F-22

The Obama administration released its request for the FY 2011 defense budget last month. The requested $708.3 billion represents a more than tripling in spending from 1997, bringing our defense budget to an historic high, surpassing the Reagan era buildup, Vietnam, and higher than even the peak during the Korean War, a peak which we’ve been over for the past seven years.

This dangerous trend of building off the base of the previous year’s budget is unsustainable and not, as many think, inevitable. While national security must be the number one priority for the United States, a point that Obama has made repeatedly, defense dollars are unrestrained and lend further to the fears of an exploding deficit and a far too limited United States.

Never has there been a more important time to emphasize fiscal discipline. There is no legal reason that the defense budget should be exempt from the discretionary freeze. Congress should examine the defense budget and find where things can realistically and safely be reduced. Our troops deserve every dollar they need to remain safe and to accomplish our mission; but there are places that the budget can be slimmed down to better reflect our current threats of the 21st century. We must ensure that defense dollars are effective and focused and held accountable like all other parts of the budget.

Defense spending has been unconstrained for a decade, reaching higher than ever amounts. These increases have not been rebalanced or traded off. The Obama administration needs to seek clarity and reexamine what is being spent where. And while certainly no compromises are being struck to balance spending, the spending is raised disparately and with little explanation why.

We need to see where we can realistically cut back. For example, we do not need to grow military force when we are planning on drawing down numbers from our current conflicts. There is currently no arraying the budget by mission. The Department of Defense has no specific data on their spending. There needs to be better military and DOD priority setting like the successful drawdown from 1989-1995.

One of the most dangerous trends is the base budget creep that creates budgets by building on the previous year’s budget. Such reckless budgeting has dangerous implications, especially as China may not always be there to pay our way.

The United States needs a coherent defense strategy. The US is not only ramping up a war in Afghanistan and completing a war in Iraq but it is taking on many conflicts. Objectives are not prioritized or clearly enumerated. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review released last month endorses mission expansion to tackle many possible future threats to the United States, most specifically weak countries that could fall as a safe haven for al Qaeda. This gives the United States an unlimited role in all parts of the world and increases the likelihood of future conflicts and expenditure of money and troops.

Defining a clear, concise global mission will allow for a real, sustainable reduction. If we are going to really change defense spending, we must change our strategy alongside budget reform. If we fail in having a clear strategy in mind, we will certainly fail in applying the means.

In his first two budgets, Obama has refocused defense spending in certain areas. Last year production of the F-22 was terminated and the Army’s Future Combat Systems were reconfigured; this year the Obama administration proposes terminating production of the C-17 Military transport production and the Navy CG(X) Cruiser. Individual steps like this will add up to reduce our defense spending, but applying broader fiscal responsibility to our military will have long term benefits for reducing our debt and reviving our economy.

As we are working to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, particularly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, we must keep our budget in mind as we are setting goals and priorities to succeed. Our national security depends on the maintenance of a strong defense but our nation in not unlimited. Having a comprehensive strategy, not only for Afghanistan, but for all our foreign involvement, would help us have clear goals and an efficient way to achieve them and — and pay for them too.