The U.S. defense budget is currently inadequate to meet the nation’s security needs. Yet, a panel led by retired U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, the former Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Alice Rivlin, budget director under President Clinton, has proposed to reduce the federal debt by making drastic cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. Defense spending, however, is not the cause of America’s fiscal woes. Rather, mandatory spending on entitlements and interest on our debt currently accounts for over 50 percent of the federal budget, while defense spending accounts for less than one-fifth.
Noting that the defense budget has been growing since 9/11, some observers argue that there should be no problem with reducing defense. However, despite the post-9/11 budget increases, defense spending is still tight and core defense capabilities are being shortchanged.
This is true even though current levels of defense spending are at near historic lows. Since 2001, defense spending lingers around 4 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while spending levels during World War II reached 38 percent, 14 percent during the Korean War, 10 percent during the Vietnam War, and 7 percent during the Cold War.
Within defense, the need for increased investment in missile defense remains paramount. The threat of ballistic missiles from Iran and North Korea is rising. Having missile defenses in place would give the President an alternative to retaliating with a high-yield nuclear weapon in the case of a contingency crisis at home or abroad, as more than 30 countries throughout the world rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. As the threat of missiles launched from Iran, North Korea, or coalitions of hostile parties grow, so does the need for more robust, comprehensive defenses—particularly when no matter where on Earth a missile is launched, it would take 33 minutes or less to destroy its intended target.
Most Americans support spending what is necessary on defense, and a large majority of Americans, between 80 to 90 percent, support missile defense. But many are starting to realize the nation isn’t spending enough to maintain robust defensive capabilities.
Indeed, missile defense spending consists of only 1.4 percent of the total defense budget—around $10 billion a year. Yet, despite the importance of missile defenses in fulfilling the government’s constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense, this panel recommends shaving $5 billion off the budget for missile defenses. This recommendation comes on top of the Obama Administration’s massive cuts to missile defense last year (an overall reduction of over 15 percent of program spending) and scaling back of the number of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California from 44 to 30. This short-sighted decision was presumably made to convince Russia and China that our defenses pose no significant capability against their missiles. By taking this step, the Administration is delaying critical added protection against long-range missile threats and reducing the missile interceptor force dedicated to protecting the U.S. homeland.
Instead of cutting defense, the government needs to adopt a sensible and efficient defense budget. By maintaining sensible and stable defense budgets and adopting efficiencies in logistics and acquisition, we can find the funds for military modernization and provide a steady stream of funding for new, lower-cost, innovative equipment.
In view of the growing ballistic missile threats to the United States and its allies and friends, the commission’s recommendation to balance the budget by making America less safe is completely irresponsible. Not only would these cuts leave America vulnerable to a resurgent threat, they would also send a clear message to countries like North Korea and Iran, as well as America’s own allies that the U.S. is no longer capable and willing to defend America’s interests.
Matthew Foulger is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.