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Disciplining the Defense Budget: Lessons from a joint BPC/Stimson event

Christopher Hildebrand contributed to this post.

Facing a mounting pile of debt, America is confronted with an opportunity to re-think and re-evaluate the priorities that determine how we as a nation spend money. In this critical process, all options must be on the table, including the portion of the budget that funds our armed forces.

In addition to its national security and military strength, America’s global leadership derives from its economic vitality. Although we finally appear to be emerging from the recent recession, the national debt poses a much more serious medium- and long-term danger to the health of the U.S. economic engine. As Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently expressed, “the single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.” Therefore, we must take appropriate action to address this looming crisis.

While defense spending is not the main source of our fiscal problems, its often sacrosanct and untouchable status in budgetary discussions must be revisited, as Dr. Gordon Adams suggested at a joint Bipartisan Policy Center and Stimson Center event on “Disciplining the Defense Budget.” In doing so, America has a chance to improve the efficiency of its armed forces while maintaining its military supremacy.

The numbers are clear: the scope of the national deficits is such that all components of the budget must be included: entitlements, defense spending, domestic spending, and revenues. In particular, the U.S. spends more on defense than the countries with the next 14 highest defense budgets combined. There is clearly room for restraint.

Additionally, in order for any broad deficit reduction compromise to be achieved, it must include a bipartisan approach that requires shared sacrifice from all parties. Asking everyone else to accept benefit reductions and tax increases while inefficiency and excess remain in the defense budget is likely to receive pushback.

What, then, should be cut, and what will the implications of those cuts be? As Dr. Adams suggested, we must consider our strategic mission priorities. Not all military programs ought to be considered equal; instead, they should be ranked according to their priority. In such a manner, Dr. Adams believes that we can appropriately build down our armed forces, as the U.S. has done several times in the past after major wars or global events. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s own plan enumerated several options for responsibly managing the defense budget moving forward, as does the proposal developed by President Obama’s Fiscal Commission.

And as far as the consequences of these actions go, Dr. Adams clearly laid out that America would still maintain “the most globally dominant, frightening military force in the world.” Even with these efficiencies, due in part to the sheer size of our economy, America would continue to spend significantly more than any other nation in the world on national defense.

Addressing our debt problems is of paramount importance. The immense strength of America’s military and the winding down of conflicts abroad allow us to spend less. Our fiscal situation demands it.

2011-03-10 00:00:00

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