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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Higher Defense Spending Would Be a Huge Waste of Money


House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently called for increased defense spending to soak up part of the federal budget surpluses that optimists are now predicting. Regrettably, like most politicians, the Speaker is already figuring out ways to spend money that has yet to come in. Although Gingrich and his fellow Republicans claim they are in favor of reducing the size of government and giving a break to taxpayers, they never seem to regard defense expenditures as government spending. To justify his proposed funding increases, Gingrich stressed, “I don’t want us to be strong enough to win narrowly. I want us to be so strong that no one can compete with us.”

Yet, in the post-Cold War world, the United States already has bone crushing military supremecy over any other nation. In fact, the United States is currently spending so much on defense relative to other nations that the U.S. military would remain the most powerful military on the planet even if defense expenditures were reduced significantly.

Defense hawks decry that defense spending has fallen to a little more than three percent of U.S. gross domestic product. But that figure represents only how much the economy’s productive capacity is used up by defense spending. The best measure of the adequacy of national defenses is to compare the absolute level of the defense budget with the threat environment the nation faces. The amount now being spent on defense is roughly what was spent in the late 1970s during the Cold War. Furthermore, that spending averages about $1,000 per year for every American.

In the post-Cold War world, however, the threat environment is dramatically less severe. Hawks will say that the world is still a dangerous place. But there has always been some danger in the world. The key point is that the eclipse of the Soviet Union removed the only serious threat to the vital interests of the United States. Furthermore, no other single nation spends even close to what the United States does on defense--that is, a whopping $260 billion per year. The United States spends more than all of its allies--some of whom are the next most potent military powers in the world--combined. (In fact, some NATO officials fear that the U.S. military will outpace those of the Europeans to such an extent that allied forces will no longer be able to operate effectively together.) At most, the Russians and Chinese each spend $70 billion to $80 billion per year, and the actual total might be much less. Moreover, most of that money goes to holding creaking, bloated militaries together rather than on the development and production of new weapons. Equally significant, the most unfriendly nations--Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, and North Korea--spend a paltry $15 billion per year combined.

And U.S. supremecy is not just in budgetary terms. It is widely recognized in defense circles that the United States has the only fully integrated military in the world. Other nations may buy some sophisticated weapons, but only the U.S. military combines the best weapons in the world with training, logistics, tactical and strategic lift, and command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) needed to use them effectively. Many analysts say that advances in C3I will revolutionize the future battlefield by making weapons more effective. Because the United States has unparalleled capabilities in C3I, its overwhelming dominance of future battlefields is likely.

Such dominance should allow the United States to cut some of the “overkill” from its defense budget. For example, the United States currently has three new tactical fighter programs in development or production even though the benign threat environment barely justifies even one. The U.S. Navy is retiring subsurface and surface vessels before their useful lives have ended to make room for expensive new submarines and large destroyers-weapon systems that were much more useful during the Cold War.

Those weapons are just some examples of military purchases that have nothing to do with defending the nation adequately. They are jobs programs pure and simple. Not coincidentally, some of the jobs are in the states of the Republican congressional leadership. The extra destroyer, which was added by Congress to the three unneeded ones requested in the Clinton administration’s 1998 budget, is produced in Mississippi, home of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. The eight extra C-130J transport planes also added by Congress are produced in Georgia, the home of Speaker Gingrich. Georgia has a substantial number of defense contractors and military bases.

Cutting the defense budget will improve the health of the U.S. economy in the long-term. Lowering defense spending will allow resources to be transferred from the government to private citizens and companies through reduced taxes. They in turn, can save the money, invest it, or buy goods and services, thereby fueling economic growth. As Speaker of the House, Gingrich should worry a little less about Georgia and a little more about the nation a whole.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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