Defense Cuts Would Encourage Needed Improvements

The U.S. Defense budget has not received nearly as much media scrutiny during this election cycle as it merits. Leaving such a vital topic almost exclusively in the hands of the usual cast of characters—defense secretaries, current and former; members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees; and retired chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—has given us a public debate that is “hysterical, misinformed, and most of all, misinforming,” according to defense analyst Winslow T. Wheeler, a research fellow at the Independent Institute. Wheeler debunks the current myths in two recent pieces for Time magazine’s Battleland military blog (reposted here and here).

Perhaps the leading current example of hysterical misinformation regarding the defense budget involves the spending cuts scheduled to go into effect in January. Former defense secretary Leon Panetta deems them “catastrophic” and Sen. John McCain, “devastating.” These defense-budget hawks note that budget sequestration means that military spending will fall as a percentage of GDP, but this perspective overlooks crucial facts. First, even with the automatic spending cuts—which Wheeler describes as “unremarkable” and “modest”—U.S. military spending will continue to grow relative to worldwide defense spending. “Even under the sequester, the US [defense budget] is two and a half times that of any opponents or rivals—all combined,” Wheeler writes.

Second, even this comparison does not present a sufficiently clear picture of U.S. defense capabilities. The reason, Wheeler argues, is that spending per se is not a sound proxy for the country’s military strength. Technological and troop readiness are a better measure. These measures have actually decreased since 2001, despite a surge in defense spending. Consider the Air Force’s F-22 fighter/bomber. The aircraft has been incredibly expensive—each one costing more than $770 million in today’s dollars—but the pilots have been poorly trained. “Less training for F-22 pilots and a potentially toxic environment in an airplane that cannot vastly outperform older, cheaper ‘legacy’ aircraft is just one example of the high cost technological bloat that clogs our armed forces,” Wheeler writes.

Military spending is a poor proxy for defense preparedness, and the focus on the size of the Pentagon budget is distorted. In reality, a bloated military budget and an obsession with expensive new weapons systems have invited Pentagon planners—and their benefactors in Congress—to be careless with the taxpayer’s dime. As a result, U.S. defense capabilities have suffered. The scheduled defense cuts therefore could prompt needed improvements.

Adventures in Babbleland: Desperate Rhetoric for Mundane Times, by Winslow T. Wheeler (Time, 10/1/12)

Adventures in Babbleland: Technological Bloat, by Winslow T. Wheeler (Time, 10/2/12)

[This post originally appeared in the Nov. 6, 2012, issue of The Lighthouse. To receive this weekly newsletter of analysis and announcements, enter your email address here.]

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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