More broadly, those in Washington who really want to address the budget crisis should understand clearly that the defense budget is not the problem. The driver of the budget crisis is the structural gap between the cost of entitlement programs and the revenue collected to fund them. That gap is growing. As it does, it crowds out everything in the discretionary budget, including defense funding. Shrinkage of the defense budget is therefore less a solution to the crisis than one of its negative consequences. Moreover, to the extent that a decline in American power leads to global instability and conflict, it will reduce economic growth and, therefore, the revenues that are available to balance the budget.
Second, there are crucial defense programs that can and must be funded even in the current environment. Chief among these is missile defense. Ballistic-missile defense is an entirely defensive, non-nuclear system that will — if it is fully deployed — give the United States the ability to shoot down missiles, which are most likely to be launched by rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran. There simply is no reason not to build out the system as soon as possible. Yet the Obama administration has cut missile-defense funding by a quarter over the past four years. Congress should restore that funding — it would cost only $2–3 billion — and concentrate its oversight efforts on forcing the administration to complete the missile shield with no additional delays.
Finally, it is essential that the Pentagon take credible steps to reduce the waste in its budgets. Efforts should focus on reforming the acquisition system, reducing the number of civilian employees, and rebalancing the compensation system in a way that reduces the out-year costs of retirement pensions and health care. The Perry-Hadley panel addressed these issues three years ago and recommended commonsense solutions that Congress ignored at the time but should make a priority now.
Two caveats are in order, however. First, the budgetary shortfall has become so great that there is no hope of closing it just by eliminating waste, even if we assume that Congress redirects the savings within the defense budget rather than using it to support other spending. If, for example, the Obama administration immediately eliminated 20 percent of the Pentagon’s civilian employees — and no one in Washington would bet their own money that that would ever happen — it would save at most $15 billion per year, while the difference between what the government is scheduled to spend on defense in 2020 and the amount that Secretary Gates believed was necessary is close to $250 billion.
Second, every secretary of defense in the past 20 years has talked about reforming the Pentagon. Some have actually meant it, yet in the end very little has been accomplished. The fiscal pressure on the Pentagon is now so great, however, that with determined leadership it might be possible to overcome some of the institutional and political constraints that have prevented reform in the past. That is the only good thing about the current budgetary climate. But as conservatives understand all too well, the idea of “government efficiency” is at heart oxymoronic. The Pentagon will never run like Walmart, and any defense policy that counts on its doing so is not grounded in reality.
Much of what passes for national-security debate in Washington is really a discussion of tactics, in the context of whatever crisis happens to dominate the headlines at the time. Should the United States arm the rebels in Syria? What is the appropriate response to North Korea’s provocations? What is the appropriate use of drones against al-Qaeda?
All of these are important, but they are not as important as the larger strategic questions that few people in Washington ever discuss. What are America’s vital and enduring national interests? What strategic approach to the world is the best way to protect those interests? What capabilities must be sustained to support that strategy?
Ever since the introduction of weapons of mass destruction on the world scene, the highest strategic purpose of the American military has not been to win wars but to mitigate risk; America maintains a robust set of capabilities so that presidents can protect the vital national interests of the United States while deterring or at least containing conflict within acceptable limits. Perhaps that approach should be changed, and perhaps changing it will make it possible to save money in the defense budget. But what must surely be wrong is to divorce defense policy, including spending decisions, from strategy — that is, to make budgetary decisions that sacrifice important capabilities wholly without regard for strategic considerations. That is what Washington has been doing for the past four years.
— Jim Talent is a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.