Military Spending Cuts: Simple Math And Good Policy

Our guest bloggers are Laura Conley, research associate for National Security & International Policy at the Center For American Progress, and Alex Rothman, special assistant for National Security and International Policy at CAP.

Ongoing negotiations about the debt limit have focused attention on the need to regain control of our bloated defense budget. But as Brookings Institution scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Peter W. Singer argue today in Politico, cutting defense is no simple task. Unfortunately their prescription for the problem — drawing out elevated levels of spending fearing “too-hasty” decisions — is out of touch with the reality of the unprecedented high levels of U.S. defense spending and the current state of our economy.

O’Hanlon and Singer rightly argue that defense cuts should be based on smart strategy. But their complaint that current plans for cuts “sharply contrast with the resource requirements laid out in the recent quadrennial defense and diplomatic reviews” misses the point. The 2010 QDR failed to make the hard choices necessary to prioritize national security interests. Recent plans to cut military spending — such as the proposal released by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), the illustrative Pentagon cuts presented by the president’s Fiscal Commission co-chairs, and our recent report, A Return to Responsibility — are filling in the gaps left by a Pentagon too eager to fund any mission at any cost.

Singer and O’Hanlon condemn recent defense budget debates as based on arithmetic, rather than policy, but simple math makes clear that the proposed cuts amount to good policy. U.S. defense spending over the past decade reached heights not seen in this country since WWII. This virtually unlimited budget enabled DOD to adopt a “do everything, buy everything” approach to security. Setting concrete limits on defense spending now will help to correct this dangerous trend and help DOD identify which missions and programs are essential, and which aren’t.


It’s time to bring DOD back to reality and responsibility. This year, in inflation adjusted dollars, we will spend $100 billion more on defense than President Reagan did at the height of his Cold War build-up. In just research, development, test, and evaluation funding alone — an area of the budget that O’Hanlon and Singer fear may see dangerous cuts — the U.S. is spending about $18 billion more in real terms than at Reagan’s peak. This spending is drastically disproportionate to the threats facing our country at a time when we cannot afford waste.

If we have learned anything over the past decade, it’s that no amount of money can buy perfect security. O’Hanlon and Singer’s call for more discussion on defense cuts only delays the inevitable and allows dysfunctional budgeting practices to continue.