After the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, the United States reaped a “peace dividend,” reducing defense spending. Following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, defense budgets have again soared. The nation funded both wars primarily through deficit spending, with Congress passing special appropriations to pay for the wars in addition to the regular defense budget.
The current fiscal crisis gives Americans another important opportunity to insist on reaping a “peace dividend” by cutting unnecessary defense expenditures. For peace activists, the fiscal crisis presents a unique opportunity to lobby for defense reductions. Money not spent on defense prevents, adapting a biblical metaphor, plows from being forged into swords.
Even individuals who believe that a strong defense is essential for avoiding war or for preventing the tyranny of evil (e.g., Stalinism or Nazism) can in good conscience advocate steep reductions in today’s massive defense budgets. Two categories of reductions are possible.
First, the United States should drastically cut its bloated defense bureaucracy. For example, during World War II, the Navy commissioned 1,000 ships per year and had 1,000 employees in the purchasing department. Today, the Navy commissions nine ships a year with 24,000 employees in the department. Technologically advanced twenty-first century ships have a complexity that inevitably imposes a larger administrative burden. However, if ships take 3 years to procure (unlike most of their WWII counterparts built in a single year) having 800 employees spend three years on each ship commissioned seems excessive. Similar bureaucracies support (hinder might arguably be the more accurate term) procurement of all military hardware and supplies. I encountered this problem first hand in staffing procurement of religious supplies while working for the Navy Chief of Chaplains in the early 1990s, all of which are very low cost items in the world of Pentagon procurement. Individually, I found government employees to be mostly dedicated, diligent, and hardworking. Collectively, the system is dysfunctional, taking years of labor and time to reach even simple and obvious decisions. No competitive business that managed its procurement the way the military does could survive.
The potential savings achieved by eliminating waste and inefficiency from the $700 billion defense budget is huge, probably in the 10% to 15% range. Yet entrenched bureaucracies do not easily give ground. Advocates of the status quo and of a stronger defense have already begun to lobby loudly and strongly against reducing defense expenditures. Peace advocates can work with advocates of responsible federal spending to balance the pro-defense lobby. Reducing defense spending by reducing bureaucratic bloat and inefficiency does not jeopardize national security.
Second, the United States has a political-military-industrial complex (first publicly identified by President Eisenhower) that pushes procurement of costly, unnecessary defense capabilities and equipment. This began post WWII and has continued since. For example, the U.S. has the most advanced warplanes in the world. Yet, the Defense Department, Congress, and the aerospace industry are all aggressively promoting procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a radar avoiding jet, projected to cost $400 billion for 2,400 planes over the next two decades.
Similarly, the U.S. could:
· Reduce the number of ballistic missile submarines (what potential enemy nation should their missiles target?);
· Expedite implementation of previously negotiated reductions in the number of deployed and stockpiled nuclear weapons (again, what threat do these weapons deter?);
· Replace costly conventional forces with less costly forces better suited to fight insurgencies, terrorists, and the other asymmetric conflicts that the U.S. faces today (what’s the likelihood of another major ground war?);
· Explore fairer, less costly compensation packages for military personnel (e.g., although the military is physically demanding, people today live longer and are healthier, so is a 30-year retirement plan more reasonable than a 20-year plan?).
Realistically, the U.S. is the world’s only superpower. Its only potential competitor for superpower status is China. China, in spite of impressive economic gains, has myriad internal problems (e.g., the poverty of a majority of its people and their growing demands for genuine democratic reforms) that impose uncertain but real constraints on its military expenditures. China also appears more likely to conquer the U.S. by owning our debt, perhaps even purchasing many of our assets outright, than by initiating World War Three. Building economic ties that bind China’s future well-being to renewed U.S. prosperity seems more likely to lead to peace than does entering into another arms race.
The real and immediate military threat that the United States faces is from non-state actors. These actors call for a more rapid, flexible, and non-nuclear response, e.g., the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden and some unmanned drone strikes that have killed other terrorists. As I have repeatedly argued, the United States should use a less costly, less violent, law enforcement model to shape its counterterrorism response (e.g., Ethical Musings: Terrorism and building peace and Ethical Musings: Osama bin Laden's death and peacemaking).
Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld initiated a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that relied on technology to give the U.S. a decisive victory in warfighting. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan proved Rumsfeld and the RMA wrong. Initial victory, famously celebrated by President Bush proclaiming aboard the USS LINCOLN that “major combat operations in Iraq are over,” quickly gave way to years of ongoing insurrection and armed resistance. The U.S. had prepared for, and fought, the wrong type of war. Unfortunately, seven years later we continue spending on the RMA.
Defense contractors locate facilities (i.e., jobs) in the majority of congressional districts and donate generously to political campaigns. Members of Congress want to cut spending, but only in other members’ districts. Military procurement officials know that their career success is linked to the continued funding of the programs they oversee. In short, nobody in the political-military-industrial complex has a significant incentive to cut unneeded systems. The few individuals who courageously dissent find themselves voted out of office if a politician, their position made redundant if employed by industry, or their career dead ended if a defense department employee.
Trimming the waste in defense spending will actually enhance defense capability rather than limit it by making the Defense Department more nimble in responding to emergent requirements. Furthermore, the less the nation spends on defense, the less urgency some decision makers may feel to respond militarily to world events. Finally, money not spent on defense becomes available for other government purposes (or retained by taxpayers)