The Heritage Foundation has a blog post complete with chart claiming to demonstrate that “Obama plan cuts defense spending to pre-9/11 levels”. As Benjamin Friedman lays out this is nonsense:
This is a standard rhetorical device for defense hawks (see the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Mitt Romney and lots of others) so it’s worth pointing out that it’s misleading. The unfortunate truth is that Obama is increasing non-war defense spending this year and seems likely to increase it at least by inflation in the near future.
It’s true that defense spending will probably decline as a percentage of GDP, assuming the economy recovers. But that’s because GDP grows. Ours is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950. Meanwhile, we spend more on defense in real, inflation adjusted terms, than we did then, at the height of the Cold War. The denoninator has grown faster than the numerator.
By saying that defense spending needs to grow with GDP to be “level,” you are arguing for an annual increase in defense spending without saying so directly. That’s the point, of course.
Since economic growth causes real wages to rise over time, there is some reason for thinking that a military sized appropriately to the strategic environment would need real increases in spending to maintain its level of capabilities. But one way or another, the crucial issue is that the appropriate level of defense spending is determined by the nature of the strategic environment, not by the pace of economic growth. The US economy grew rapidly during the 1990s but the level of military threats facing the country didn’t—thus, a decline in defense expenditures relative to GDP was appropriate.
One interesting trope both in the substance and rhetoric of this argument from Heritage is the idea that 9/11 ought to have touched off a large and sustained increase in defense spending. On the merits, this is a little hard to figure out. It’s difficult to make the case that the 9/11 plot succeeded because the gap in financial expenditures between the U.S. government and Osama bin Laden was not big enough. Would an extra aircraft carrier have helped? A more advanced fighter plane? A larger Marine Corps? Additional nuclear weapons? One of the most realistic ways an organization like al-Qaeda can damage the United States is to provoke us into wasting resources on a far larger scale than they could ever destroy. The mentality Heritage is expressing here is right in line with that path.