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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Korb: Defense must be part of debate to reduce spending

Guest Commentary

Because of the need to deal with our federal debt, all parts of the federal budget must be on the table when looking to reduce spending, including and particularly defense.

People who oppose reducing defense spending make at least four arguments against it. But close analysis shows that these arguments are without merit. ...

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Because of the need to deal with our federal debt, all parts of the federal budget must be on the table when looking to reduce spending, including and particularly defense.

People who oppose reducing defense spending make at least four arguments against it. But close analysis shows that these arguments are without merit.

n They argue that since Pentagon spending is not the cause of the escalating federal deficit, it should not be part of the solution.

While it is not the sole cause, increased military spending played a part in the rapid growth of our national debt and deficits. From 1998 to 2010, baseline defense spending, exclusive of the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost doubled in real (inflation-adjusted) terms.

Meanwhile, during this period the United States’ share of world military expenditure increased from one-third to one-half. Such a large and sustained military buildup is unprecedented in our history.

President Ronald Reagan built up the military for four years and then oversaw declining spending in the next four years. And during Reagan’s term in office, defense spending grew by less than 20 percent and never surpassed that of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the direct and indirect costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were not funded in the regular defense budget, will total at least $6 trillion when all is said and done.

n Many opponents of reductions in defense spending claim that the defense budget already has been cut by $487 billion over the next decade as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The trouble with that claim is that those reductions merely pared down projected increases in spending over the next decade, not reductions from the amount we are currently spending – there were no real “cuts” as most people would understand them.

In fact, the defense budget will still go up over the next decade, just not as rapidly as it did in the last decade. And we are still slated to spend more on defense over the next decade than we did over the last decade.

n Some claim that reductions in defense spending will create a hollow force, just as we did after Vietnam and the Cold War.

It is true that the budget was cut as we left Vietnam, but war funding was not put in a separate account; it was part of the regular budget. And during the post-Vietnam drawdown, the budget never went below its pre-Vietnam level in real terms.

More importantly, with President Richard Nixon’s opening of relations to China and arms control treaties with the Soviet Union, the threat was less in the 1960s than it was in the 1970s.

Similarly, when the Cold War ended, Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that the defense budget could be cut safely by 25 percent without jeopardizing national security.

The actual reduction was only 20 percent, and the “hollow force” funded during the drawdown was the same force that drove the Taliban from Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein from Iraq in a matter of weeks.

n Some claim that cuts of $500 billion over the next decade will make it impossible to fulfill our obligations to our military retirees and wounded veterans.

This is not true, as neither of those obligations is paid by the Department of Defense. The retirees are paid from the Treasury, and veterans are cared for by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Pentagon does not have a money problem; it has a management problem. Because of the gusher of defense spending that opened up after 9/11, the Department of Defense’s political and military leaders did not have to make hard choices or prioritize.

Even if sequestration were to occur, the amount of money available to the Department of Defense, in real terms, would return to the fiscal year 2007 level, not 1916, 1946, 1976 or 1997, as some claim.

And, more importantly, it would force the Pentagon’s leaders to be more careful in their stewardship of taxpayer dollars, something they did not do well over the past decade.

Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, will speak at the World Affairs Council of New Hampshire on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the University of New Hampshire in Manchester. He served under President Ronald Reagan as assistant secretary of defense.