War Stories

Now Is the Time to Cut the Defense Budget

Let’s figure out how to do it responsibly.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jet
A U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jet at an event during the Dubai airshow in the United Arab Emirates on Nov. 17. Production of additional F-22s was halted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates during the Great Recession. Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is worried that the COVID-19 crisis might waylay his plans to increase the military budget. No kidding. But the way Esper formulated the problem shows he isn’t remotely prepared to deal with it.

Esper said on Monday that “we need 3 to 5 percent annual real growth” in the defense budget. Since this year’s budget amounts to $740 billion, he’s talking about increasing it by $22 billion to $37 billion—for a total, next year, of up to $777 billion, or actually a bit more than that, since he called for that much “real growth,” meaning growth beyond the level of inflation.

Yet, Esper added, he is “concerned” that the government’s $3 trillion infusion into the economy, to keep the country and its people alive during the lockdown, “may throw us off that course.”

He doesn’t understand the half of it. As anyone in the real world could tell him, in the face of such massive deficits, the defense budget will not merely be raised by a smaller percentage but will have to be reduced, probably by quite a lot. The question is how to cut it—by whim or deliberatively.

The problem is that almost no one analyzes defense budgets these days. This didn’t used to be the case. In the early 1960s, Robert McNamara, President John F. Kennedy’s defense secretary, subjected the military’s budget requests to “systems analysis,” slicing away programs that were redundant or didn’t meet the test of cost-effectiveness. Starting in the 1970s, even through Ronald Reagan’s profligacy toward the Pentagon, staff members on the congressional armed services committees used the same techniques in overseeing the Defense Department, at least to some extent.

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, followed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and suddenly no one dared cut defense spending, for fear of being tagged “soft on terror” or “harmful to the troops,” even concerning parts of the budget that had nothing to do with terrorists or the troops’ welfare.

For a couple years, when Barack Obama entered the White House, his defense secretary, Robert Gates, revived McNamara’s methods, cutting or killing more than 30 weapons systems, including some of the military services’ most cherished projects—the Army’s Future Combat Systems vehicle, the Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer, and, especially, the Air Force’s F-22 stealth fighter plane. Obama and Gates were able to do this for two reasons. First, Gates was a holdover from George W. Bush’s presidency and could thus attract bipartisan respect. Second, Obama inherited the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, so budget cuts were tolerated.

Even so, Gates’ cuts were hardly arbitrary. He halted the F-22 not just because it was expensive but because the Air Force’s justification for building more of the planes was deeply flawed. At the time, the Air Force had 183 of the planes; its senior officers wanted to build a total of 387. Yet their case for this expansion, laid out in their internal briefing books, assumed that the United States would someday have to fight two wars simultaneously against two nations that possessed as much air power as we had. It also assumed that a large percentage of F-22s would be in routine maintenance depots when the wars started—i.e., that the two foes would coordinate a surprise attack against us.

If the attacks did not come as a surprise, and if therefore we could mobilize more F-22s before the war begins, we wouldn’t need to buy quite so many planes to begin with. And if we dismissed the extremely unlikely premise that two comparably powerful nations (say, a resurgent Russia and China) would launch a war against us simultaneously, the 183 F-22s we already had—in addition to the many other planes and missiles in the arsenal—would be plenty.

So Gates halted the project. Obama threatened to veto the entire defense budget if it contained money for a single additional F-22. When the Air Force chief of staff and secretary of the Air Force rebelled, Gates fired both of them.

When Gates left government in 2011, he gave a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, the neoconservative think tank, warning that, because of fiscal and financial pressures, defense spending would have to be cut over the next 10 years. Rather than take the easy way out and “salami slice” a certain percentage off the top, a technique sure to leave a “hollowed-out” military force (plenty of troops and weapons but too little for operations, maintenance, or training), Gates suggested that Congress, the president, and the American people should make conscious choices of what military missions to forgo and what levels of risk to accept.

Gates was wrong in his premise—the military budget has gone up and up ever since, thanks in part to an economic revival that began not long after the speech—but his argument resonates now more than ever. The current economic crisis is far deeper, and will likely last longer, than the one sparked by the 2008 bank failures. And the breakdown of the geopolitical order, which had begun shortly before Obama took office, is now raising urgent questions about America’s global power and commitments. Choices must be made, and there is no appetite—and little analytic talent—for making them.

Even nine years ago, Gates recognized this lacuna. He noted that the Pentagon and its overseers in Congress used to parse the military’s budget requests routinely, but the practice—and the demand for it—dried up during “the post-9/11 decade,” when the military services grew “accustomed” to a “no-questions-asked” attitude toward giving them whatever they wanted.

Nobody is asking these questions now. President Donald Trump and his advisers aren’t interested in considering them. Congress is too weighed down with the coronavirus crisis at hand—and still too wedded to Cold War concepts of defense. At a 2019 hearing on the nuclear stockpile, one of the few hearings in recent times on the subject, Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat from a Virginia district weighed down with defense industries, bellowed that it was “dangerous” not merely to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal but even “to allow someone to come before this committee and suggest” such a notion.

The nuclear arsenal is one place where a renewed inquiry might begin. We are spending $29 billion this year on nuclear weapons—19 percent more than the year before—and are in the early stages of a plan to spend $1.2 trillion, over the next quarter-century, replacing the entire “nuclear triad” of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers. Do we need to replace all of them? Can some merely be modified? Could we get rid of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles entirely? (Some analysts regard them as the most destabilizing weapons.) How many weapons, of what kind, do we need to deter nuclear war or to limit the damage, if nuclear war can’t be deterred? During the Obama administration, after a deep analysis of the nuclear war plan and its requirements, senior officials, including the four-star head of Strategic Command, agreed that the nuclear arsenal could be cut by one-third without any damage to U.S. security—but the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military’s top officers, told Obama they would endorse such cuts only if Russia reduced its arsenal by the same amount. So the arsenal stayed as it was.

We can no longer afford to let parochial politics trump national security. After a new president is elected, and maybe a new Senate as well, it should be a high priority to resume asking the questions that haven’t been asked for a decade: How much do we need, to do what sorts of things in the world, at what cost?