After years of deficit spending and overreaching promises made by Congress, the time has come to pay the piper. As Congress searches for areas to reduce the burgeoning national budget, there are those who clamor for cuts to defense, the largest slice of the discretionary spending pie.  While inefficiencies certainly exist in the Department of Defense which should be trimmed, let’s examine just how the DoD budget stacks up against the rest of the nation’s spending before we decide to close a ring of the Pentagon.

The current defense budget is roughly 4.9% of GDP, the lowest ever during a time of war and below the 45-year historical average of 5.3%.  Meanwhile “mandatory” spending has increased five times faster than discretionary spending since 1965 and is projected to continue to increase at alarming rates due to the automatic increases built into the entitlement system.

Not only is the mandatory spending trajectory fiscally unsustainable, it’s out of step with the nation’s founding priorities.  Of the 17 powers granted to Congress in Article 1 of the Constitution, six relate to defense of the nation (with the remaining powers permissive in nature).  In reality, “discretionary” spending on defense is actually “mandatory” and “mandatory” spending on programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other guaranteed government funded retirement plans is not “mandatory” at all.

It does not make sense to slash the defense budget simply to continue paying for entitlements that are draining the coffers.  This is especially true today, a time of great instability.  The U.S. must take into consideration continued action in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran, an unstable government in Pakistan, the recent unrest and instability in Northern Africa, increases in China’s military capability, and Russia’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal.

The current proposals for defense spending cuts from those outside the Pentagon are eerily reminiscent of the defense cuts made in the early and mid 1990s, when Air Force personnel alone were cut by just over 30 percent and critical research and development programs took a “holiday,” all with the promise of decreased global commitments.  The response to the drawdown of U.S. forces was not stability; rather it emboldened our adversaries and thus our global military commitments increased by over 33 percent.  The military responded the only way it could, by increasing the deployment schedule to meet the required tasking and working personnel in garrison harder in order to account for the reduced manpower.

Draw downs have had enormously negative effects on personnel deployed and have increased the utilization rates of our weapons systems beyond designed parameters.  The harsh reality is that our global requirements and commitments are not going to decrease any time soon.  As a former commander of an Air Force squadron, I can attest to the difficult task of looking those I commanded in the eye and tell them they were now required to work longer hours, when most were already pulling 12-hour shifts, in order to accomplish the mission.

Still all options are on the table when it comes to reducing the budget, so what areas do we cut in defense?

Some have proposed cutting modernization, as new equipment is costly and many believe the equipment on hand is sufficient to do the current job.  This view is myopic; it will lead to a larger research outlay in the future than if we continue our current modernization programs.  Military equipment is designed and developed with a certain mean time between failure and service life requirements, and we have far exceeded both on a great deal of our military equipment.  Continued modernization is a must if we are to keep ahead of the threats posed by the military modernization of China and the increased nuclear proliferation threat.

Another proposal to reduce the defense budget is to cut more personnel and their benefits on the basis of future savings in military retirement and health care costs.  Often, what looks good on paper really isn’t in reality and is more expensive in the long run.  The Air Force is smaller now than at any time since its inception in 1947.  Not only is our equipment wearing out, but the toll on our most valuable resource, our people, is beginning to show.

Historically the suicide rate is lower in the military than in the general population, but in 2008 that trend reversed with suicides in the military exceeding those in the general populace on a percentage basis.  The divorce rate among active duty service personnel rose from 2.9% in 2001 to 3.9% in 2010.  Both of these are indicators of stressors on the force and a further reduction of personnel will not alleviate this stress.  We will spend more money down the road on extended health care and death benefits if this stress continues.  “But we will cut our global commitments at the same time we reduce our budget and our force” some say.  I’ve heard that one before.

Regarding retirement and benefits, the 2011 budget proposal still awaiting congressional action allocates $51.72 billion for military retirement, less than Unemployment Insurance ($83.26 billion), Food Stamps ($80.08 billion), Federal Civilian Employee Retirement and Disability ($73.39 billion) and Supplemental Security Income ($53.22 billion).  To be fair, Veteran’s Benefits are allocated $122 billion for FY2011, of which $53.24 billion will go to medical care, hospital services, and insurance programs.  If we compare that to Medicare ($498 billion) and Medicaid ($260 billion), the amount of savings by suggested cuts in this area don’t really make a large dent when compared to other government sponsored health benefit programs.

The bottom line?  Until we achieve a more stable global defense posture, we should not reduce the defense budget over what has already been proposed by the DoD.  In today’s circumstance, even those “savings” gained by the reduction of redundancies and inefficiencies inherent in any bureaucracy must be reinvested in RTD&E, procurement and critical current equipment upgrades.

Lt Col Todd Copeland is a Henry L. Stimson Center National Defense Fellow. He formerly served as the commander of the 509th Operations Support Squadron and as the chief of air-to-ground weapons and bomber test programs at the Headquarters Air Force, Division of Test and Evaluation.

This post appeared on The Will and the Wallet.

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