Defense Secretary Robert Gates sometimes seems the only adult in Washington, especially when compared to Congress (a.k.a. Romper Room). He offered up what he described as his “last major policy speech in Washington” on Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, that neo-con nest behind Washington’s famous Mayflower Hotel.
In this key passage, he sums up the challenge facing U.S. national security going forward. It’s properly caveated, and should be laminated and airdropped across Washington as the nasty defense-budget debate looms:
Defense expenditures are currently a lower share of GDP than most of the last half century and much lower percentage than during previous major wars. When President Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex in 1961, defense consumed more than half of the federal budget, and the portion of the nation’s economic output devoted to the military was about 9 percent. By comparison, this year’s base defense budget of $530 billion — the highest since World War II, adjusted for inflation — represents less than 15 percent of all federal spending and equates to roughly 3 1/2 percent of GDP, a number that climbs to about 4 1/2 percent when the war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan are included.
But as I am fond of saying, we live in the real world. Absent a catastrophic international conflict or a new existential threat, we are not likely to return to Cold War levels of defense expenditures, at least as a share of national wealth, any time soon. Nor do I believe we need to.
First, the world is different. Our primary adversary then was a comparably armed superpower, bristling with millions of troops, tens of thousands of tanks, and thousands of advanced combat aircraft, not to mention a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons. It was poised to overrun Western Europe and could directly threaten our allies and interests around the globe. I know this. As head analyst at CIA, I signed off on the studies of Soviet military power.
The threat from potential adversaries America faces today and down the road are dangerous and daunting for their complexity and variety and unpredictability. But as a matter of national survival, they do not approach the scale of the Soviet military threat that provided the political and strategic rationale for defense expenditures that consumed a significant portion of our economy.
Second, we’re not going to see a return to Cold War level defense budgets, at least as a share of GDP, because America is different. Our economy, our demographics and our fiscal predicament, whether measured in the size of debt and deficits, ratios of retirees to workers, or the share of the federal budget consumed by entitlements, the money and political support simply aren’t there.
You can argue with his art, but you can’t argue with the frame he has put around it.