Defense Spending Myths: Cutting Through the Noise

In deciding on how best to deal with our deficit crisis, the prospect of cutting the defense budget has been a point of heated debate. As the federal government grapples with the effects of sequestration, the House passed a bill this week that will cushion the effects of the cuts for the Pentagon while leaving other agencies to bear their full brunt. There are a few highly misleading ideas that have cropped up in the defense spending debates that detract from a productive conversation. Here are three popular ideas, or “myths,” that deserve a closer look as this bill makes its way to the Senate.

Myth #1: Measuring defense spending as a percentage of GDP is a good way to gauge our defense capabilities.

In no way does measuring defense spending as a percentage of GDP accurately represent the capabilities of our military to execute its missions. Consider how we calculate GDP and all of the factors that go into it – if private consumption or investment increases more rapidly than defense spending, naturally defense spending will subsequently comprise a smaller percentage of GDP. Does that mean we should increase defense spending if there is no change in the international environment?

Conversely, if the GDP goes down and the threat goes up, should we reduce defense spending? An appropriate level of defense spending should be calculated based on threats and strategy, not an arbitrary percentage of GDP. We should spend more when the country faces an existential threat, as it did in the Cold War and when we go to war, and we should spend less in peacetime – our Gross Domestic Product has nothing to do with it.

Myth #2: Defense cuts will lead to a jump in unemployment.

Defense cuts will result in some job losses in the defense industry, no question about it. However, defense spending is not meant to be a jobs program, nor should we want it to be. The purpose of our defense budget is to ensure that we are able to protect the American people and our nation, regardless of how many people it takes to accomplish that goal. In fact, defense spending is a particularly inefficient job creator: more jobs can be created by putting that money almost anywhere else, like in infrastructure, clean energy, or education. Even tax cuts create more jobs per dollar. If Congress wants to increase employment, they should pass a jobs bill, not pour funds into programs that do little to improve our national security and are inefficient at creating jobs.

With sequestration and the Budget Control Act, Congress has made it clear that cuts to federal spending are coming. But in all likelihood, cutting Pentagon spending will result in less job loss than cutting nonmilitary funding by the same amount.

Myth #3: The Defense Department has already endured $487 billion in cuts over the next ten years as part of deficit reduction efforts, on top of billions in efficiencies measures and sequestration.

Sequestration will cut $472 billion from the Pentagon over the next decade, or less than $50 billion a year, but to be clear: the sequestration cuts are the first real cuts to the military budget in over a decade. Even with the cuts in effect (a reduction of $47 billion this fiscal year), we will still be spending more in real terms on our military in 2013 than we did in 2006. While the method of the sequestration cuts is certifiably terrible, the actual amount to be cut is not unreasonable.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 reduced military spending by $487 billion over the next ten years, but the key point is that those cuts came from projected increases in the defense budget. The cuts essentially kept the defense budget at its current level for the next few years before allowing it to return to moderate growth. As a result, even with these $487 billion in cuts, the Pentagon had not yet endured any real cuts over the past 15 years, while other departments had seen their budgets repeatedly slashed in real terms.

The same is true for many other cited ‘cuts.’ According to the Defense Department, the base budget grew by $.3 billion from FY 2010 to FY 2011 and by $2.4 billion from FY2011 to FY2012. The 2013 base budget is $527.5 billion – only about a $3 billion reduction from the current level. While war spending (which should be added on top of the base budget to give a version of total defense spending) has declined over the last few years, this decline is a function of the end the Iraq war and troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and should not be equated to deficit reduction measures.

Whether you think the military budget is too high or too low, or that cutting defense spending will create a hollow force or can be done without harm, there should be no question that it is in everyone’s best interests to keep the debate away from statements that only create noise and focus on the issues that actually matter.

Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Lauren Linde is an intern at CAP.