Half a trillion dollars -- and change

February 11, 2005|By Loren Thompson

WASHINGTON -- This week's revelation that the Bush administration will probably spend half a trillion dollars on defense next year attracted surprisingly little attention. Network news broadcasts gave the story a minute or two and major newspapers buried it, no doubt sharing the view of Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon that there was "less here than meets the eye."

But the lack of interest may say more about how Donald H. Rumsfeld has rearranged popular expectations during his four years as defense secretary than it does about the substance of the budget. The proposed Pentagon budget for fiscal year 2006 is the latest installment in a revolution that is transforming every facet of American military power.

That revolution has so many moving pieces that Mr. Rumsfeld may be the only person in the administration who fully grasps the overall plan. But that doesn't change the fact that he is reshaping everything about America's military at once, in a process that is both exciting and risky. So it's worth taking some time to understand the key features of the budget.

First, the proposed military budget is huge. Pundits peg its size at only 4 percent of the economy, but when you add all the parts together -- nuclear weapons spending in the Energy Department and so-called supplemental appropriations outside the normal budget for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the total is likely to be bigger than the entire economy of Russia.

Russia was once thought to be America's equal in military power, but the World Bank's latest estimate of the size of its economy (for 2003) is $433 billion, which is less than the administration is seeking for the military even with the costs of Iraq excluded. It's possible that Iraq and Afghanistan will cost less next year than the $100 billion extra the administration is seeking this year, but total military spending will still exceed half a trillion dollars because the administration's plan takes the Pentagon budget up $20 billion more each year through 2009.

Second, the proposed budget really is part of a long-term transformation plan that traces its origins to George W. Bush's first run for the presidency. In a campaign speech Sept. 23, 1999, Mr. Bush declared that he would give his defense secretary "a broad mandate to challenge the status quo and envision a new architecture for American defense."

Mr. Rumsfeld has embraced that mandate with passion. Among other things, he is reorienting the military's investment plans to stress military applications for high-capacity wireless networks and spy satellites; reorganizing military units to stress versatility and quick response; rewriting personnel policy to free up soldiers from desks for war-fighting; closing scores of domestic and overseas bases no longer needed; and forcing the military services to cooperate closely rather than duplicating each others' capabilities. The budget funds all of these initiatives.

Third, the budget reflects Mr. Rumsfeld's determination to challenge bureaucratic interests that have lost touch with military needs. Programs and facilities that don't fit his framework for future warfare are targeted for big cuts, including every type of warship, six of the military's seven aircraft production lines and a number of munitions. Meanwhile, space and communications initiatives that have little political constituency are being greatly increased.

That's something of a surprise, since the programs and bases targeted are mostly in Republican states. But from the very beginning, Mr. Rumsfeld has refused to play the congressional game of "going along to get along," and as a result, he has ruffled the feathers of many in Congress.

Finally, the most worrisome feature of the proposed budget is its fealty to fashionable ideas about the future. Mr. Rumsfeld's budget is a highly ideological document, not in the sense of being conservative, but in the sense of assuming that the old way of waging war is gone for good.

So the budget cuts funding for air and sea power while preparing for an era of information warfare. Unfortunately, air and sea power are areas where America can hope to dominate, while other countries will be able to match America in networked warfare. Thus, even if Mr. Rumsfeld's vision of tomorrow is true, all those trillions of dollars may not deliver military superiority over the long run.

Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and teaches security studies at Georgetown University.

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