Politics & Policy

Defense Spending Is Not the Problem

Congress should remember that we are still facing very real threats.

The approaching debt-reduction recommendations from the “Super Committee” seem unlikely to generate a bipartisan consensus. Under the law that created the committee, if Congress doesn’t trim at least $1.2 trillion from the next ten years’ worth of spending, the difference will be made up in massive across-the-board cuts. Certain budget areas — including entitlements — will be exempt from the cuts, but defense will not. The resulting cuts to the Pentagon budget could set back our national security, research capabilities, and industrial base for decades.

Is defense spending really the problem? Defense spending currently accounts for less than 20 cents of every dollar spent by the federal government. And budget experts warn that our current level of defense spending masks shortfalls — after the last decade of “hollow growth” and extended combat, our equipment stocks have only grown “smaller and older.”

#ad#Before he left his post as defense secretary, Robert Gates identified almost $200 billion in defense savings and canceled more than 30 programs. He warned, however, that another round of heavy cuts would be “catastrophic.”

Despite such warnings, the president has called for $400 billion in defense cuts over twelve years, and some members of Congress have called for $1 trillion or more. Further, in the event that Congress fails to cut at least $1.2 trillion in total, the aforementioned across-the-board cuts will be split evenly between security and non-security spending. That means security cuts of up to $600 billion.

Congress should remember that we are still facing very real threats. Today, we are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fighting al-Qaeda across the globe using intelligence and special-operations forces backed up with Predator drones and other modern technologies. We’re also protecting the nascent democratic movements in Libya and elsewhere, expanding operations to hot spots like Yemen, and rotating home a fighting force worn down by a decade of repeated, extended combat deployments.

Terror attacks are on the rise as the threat spreads around the globe — according to the National Counterterrorism Center, there were 2,534 terror attacks worldwide in 2010, nearly triple the 945 recorded five years ago.

And as if these rising threats weren’t daunting enough, a surging China is building a new aircraft carrier, several nations are developing and flying stealth aircraft to challenge our dominance of the skies, and space has becoming a battleground of its own, as the Chinese recently proved by shooting one of their own satellites out of the sky. Rogue states such as North Korea and Iran are steaming ahead, developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that put the entire world at risk.

The last ten years have demonstrated that there is no virtue in using low-tech methods to fight low-tech enemies. The methods we use to combat simple IEDs rely on cutting-edge technologies.

Virtually every major success in the war against terrorism — from Operation Jawbreaker, which dropped special forces into Afghanistan to identify Taliban targets for destruction, to the killing of Osama bin Laden, which depended on advanced drones, stealth aircraft, and orbiting satellites as well as our SEAL marksmen — can be attributed to our superior military technology used by a superbly trained force.

Similarly, the Defense Department’s own forward-looking strategy review warns that “U.S. air forces in future conflicts will encounter integrated air defenses of far greater sophistication and lethality than those fielded by adversaries” in previous conflicts. Expert analyses call for more investment in fighter aircraft — from multi-purpose F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to the lower cost F-15s and F-18s — if we want to maintain U.S. dominance in the skies.

The Pentagon may understand the shift we’ve experienced from the Cold War to the asymmetrical shadow world of terrorists and rogue states, but does the Congress? The paradox of technology means that even the lowest-rent criminals and despots can now get hold of the most sophisticated and devastating armaments. From Pakistan to Libya to Yemen, our ability to act in ungoverned or insecure places without unduly risking American lives depends on being able to do so with stealth and precision.

Those sounding the alarm about the deficit are surely well intentioned, but they must square their cleaver-like cut proposals with our actual security needs.

— Before retiring from the Air Force, Maj. Gen. Bentley B. Rayburn was the president of the Air War College and commander of the Air Force Doctrine Center.

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