Can military defend budget?

November 14, 2005|By LOREN THOMPSON

WASHINGTON -- If you think Republicans are the party of small government, then you don't know Donald H. Rumsfeld's Defense Department. Five years of hefty increases have raised the Pentagon budget 40 percent, to well over $1 billion a day. Add in special appropriations for the war in Iraq, and the annual total approaches half a trillion dollars.

The good news is that all that money gives America's military far more reach and firepower than any other military on Earth. The bad news is that even Mr. Rumsfeld isn't sure it is buying the kind of military posture that can cope with future threats (he has repeatedly expressed doubts).

It better be enough money, though, because the military is facing its first real budget crunch since Mr. Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon in 2001 for his second tour as defense secretary. Budgets are unlikely to rise by much more than the rate of inflation for the rest of Mr. Rumsfeld's tenure, which is making the military's ongoing "quadrennial defense review" something less than the stuff dreams are made of.

One question that seldom gets addressed in such budget battles is why the Pentagon has so much trouble making ends meet on more than $1 billion a day. After all, most of the rest of humanity - China, India, Indonesia - gets by on a fraction of what the Pentagon spends. So why does America's military need so much money? Here are four big reasons:

First, no other nation has ever set for itself military goals quite as ambitious as those that the United States pursues. America is the only power with a global military presence, and the most pressing challenges it faces are literally on the other side of the world.

That means the military must sustain a worldwide communications network, a global intelligence system, airlift, sealift and various other logistical capabilities even before it gets to the question of what weapons it needs. If the nation had less-imposing aspirations for its role in the world, military costs could shrink accordingly.

Once you get beyond this official answer for the high cost of defense, though, you start to encounter a series of more troubling explanations. One is the high cost of military personnel. In order to defuse opposition to the war in Vietnam, the Nixon administration decided to end conscription. That meant the military had to compete in the marketplace against private employers for skilled labor, and let's face it: When the job description includes getting shot at, you'd better offer a pretty good benefits package.

Second, creation of an all-volunteer force has exposed the military budget to all the pressures that private-sector companies face - scarcity of key skills, rising health care costs, escalating retirement benefits, etc. These pressures have made military personnel a $100 billion item in the Pentagon budget, far exceeding the cost of weapons procurement.

Third is the high cost of weapons, which has as much to do with the way the military is organized as the high-tech features of the weapons themselves. Each military service traditionally bought weapons as if the other services barely existed, which led to a great deal of duplication. Mr. Rumsfeld has worked hard to reduce redundancy, but that means the services must be linked so they can depend on each other.

The need to stitch the services together into a unified force - a "joint" force, in Pentagon parlance - looks likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars. What's more, many of the key networking initiatives are so complicated that they might never be fielded. In the meantime, the military must pay for both the new technology and sustaining legacy capabilities.

Fourth is the congressional premium that must be paid to sustain legislative support for the defense posture. Military bases and weapons programs spawn powerful political constituencies that often block change. Whether it is the Air Force trying to rationalize its reserve units or Mr. Rumsfeld trying to kill an unneeded piece of artillery, local representatives almost always try to prevent any loss of jobs.

Mr. Rumsfeld has learned the hard way that he can't dictate outcomes to Congress, so much of the time he has to accept expenditures he knows are wasteful. If he resisted, Congress might undermine his most important initiatives.

In the end, the system still produces a military force of unparalleled skill, equipped with cutting-edge weapons such as the F-22 fighter and the V-22 tilt-rotor that no other country can hope to match. But it is the sort of force that only a hugely wealthy country could sustain, and even the U.S. government seems to have reached the limits of what it is willing to pay for defense.

Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute. His e-mail address is

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