The Pentagon Role in the Budget Debate: Inputs v. Outputs

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The value of the nearly 150 million troy ounces of gold at Fort Knox -- even at its current record price of about $1,450 per ounce -- would pay for less than three months of U.S. national security. Fittingly, it's stored on a military post. / Wikimedia

Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to cut the federal budget is garnering a lot of attention because it makes tough choices. Except when it comes to defense spending, that is. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Budget Committee embraces the twin tom-toms used by those who think it’s perfectly fine for the U.S. to continue spending more money on the military than it did during the Cold War.

Here are the drums they are banging:

— “Defense spending as a share of the budget has fallen from around 25 percent thirty years ago to around 20 percent today.” So?

— “The United States spends a great deal on defense in nominal terms, but the share of the nation’s resources devoted to defense has declined from its Cold War average of 5.5 percent to just under 5 percent today.” Again, so what? These are national-security non sequiturs.

The balancing act required to figure out how much to spend to defend the nation grows critical this week, as the federal government is on the verge of shutting down because Congress can’t get its act together. Trimming defense spending won’t solve the problem, a growing number of experts agree, but it would be a step in the right direction. The fiscal vise is going to make it happen, sooner or later, so we might as well get a jump on the problem by tackling it in a smart way.

Those committed to a full-time war footing for this country for the foreseeable future against a handful of foes with no standing army, no standing navy (except when they run an inflatable boat into one of our warships), and no standing air force (except when they hijack our planes) keep citing inputs.

They would much prefer to detail how much less the defense budget is — in terms of its share of federal spending and the nation’s overall economy — in historical terms, rather than detail the threats it is arrayed against. They like to deal with the inputs — money — and spend less time on the outputs — just what is the threat warranting this level of investment, and how well that level of investment does at countering that threat.

Here’s what Ryan’s report says on that score: “Brave men and women in uniform are engaged with a fierce enemy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other theaters of the ongoing global war on terrorism.” Kindly check your wallets when adjectives like “brave” and “fierce” are being thrown around in a purportedly objective document detailing our military needs.

Apparently, according to Ryan and company, the nation needs to spend $1 trillion annually — when you include homeland security and veterans care — as far as the eye can see. A global missile-defense system is now up and running — even though no potential rogue state is close to being able to reach us. Are we obligated to spend $10 billion annually on missile defense forever (every morning, Boeing boasts on Washington radio how its missile shield is defending the nation, which makes one wonder why they need to spend money to tell us that when there is nobody out there threatening us…it seems the military equivalent of giving every 5-year old on the soccer team a trophy)?

This is a theme echoed in a report this week by the conservative Heritage Foundation: A Strong National Defense — The Armed Forces America Needs and What They Will Cost. Obama’s base military budget proposed for 2012 — not counting the wars — is $585 billion; Heritage argues it needs to be $720 billion, or $2 billion a day — a 23 percent hike. “The world is a dangerous place,” the report warns. Balderdash. Actually, it’s far less dangerous than it was during the last half of the 20th Century. There is no sworn enemy of the U.S. armed with thousands of missiles on hair-trigger alert aimed at our country. Sure there are dangerous people, in dangerous places, but they are few and far between in the overall scheme of things. Why is this such a difficult concept to grasp, and why do we seem politically incapable of recalibrating our military might to adjust to this new reality? Even one of the hawks at Aviation Week, long the Bible of the (flying) military-industrial complex, is raising his eyebrows.

Frankly, Ryan, President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates all agree that the current national defense is sized and shaped just about right. Given that, there’s nothing to do but encourage Gates, and his successors, to continue hunting for waste, fraud and abuse. Think of that as three-card monte for folks who want to keep spending money, and lots of it. Whenever you hear them pounding their chests, promising to wring waste, fraud and abuse from the defense budget, ask them who is calling for more waste, fraud and abuse.

Ryan isn’t budging from the script. “We think that Secretary Gates has done a good job of going through the Pentagon budget and looking for a bunch of waste and a lot of inefficiencies,” he says. Alas, the real inefficiencies aren’t the tales like the $421,000 fax machine that I wrote about more than 20 years ago:

“Our fax machine will reproduce an image with practically no loss of detail,” Jack Catalano…said from his office at the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Division at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. “I was looking at a picture of a squirrel it produced this morning, and if you wanted to sit there long enough you could count the hairs on the squirrel.”

Folks who want defense spending to remain high will keep on rolling out studies and reports — not to mention the need to send facsimiles of squirrel hairs around the world — that begin with a certain worldview: that the U.S. military needs to be ready to intervene anywhere, at any time, at any cost. That’s one reason why it takes a $1 billion U.S. destroyer, and its 300-member crew, to handle five Somali pirates, in a 20-foot fiberglass skiff.