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U.S. Military
"Half a Trillion Dollars Should Be Enough"
Richard Betts Urges Fiscal Discipline for Military Spending
10/25/2007 6:19 PM ET
"Powerful armed forces are necessary for U.S. national security, but they should be tailored to counter the threats and vulnerabilities the country actually faces, not to satisfy hubristic ambitions of remaking the world," writes Richard K. Betts, Director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

The budget request for DOD operations in FY 2008 is $505 billion, with the supplemental $142 billion requested for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that adds up to a defense budget of $647 billion--almost as much as the combined military spending of the rest of the world.

In Betts view, military spending has lost all sense of economy, resulting in an unnecessarily bloated budget permitted by policymakers who have lost all sense of defense policy, and who recognize electoral peril if they require a belt-tightening in security expenditures.

The high levels of spending do not simply result from the needs of ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but on budgeting funds for expensive weapons systems that may not directly confront the immediate security needs of the country. Betts writes:

The military capabilities of the United States need to be kept comfortably superior to those of present and potential enemies. But they should be measured relatively, against those enemies' capabilities, and not against the limits of what is technologically possible or based on some vague urge to have more....

Washington opened the sluice gates of military spending after the 9/11 attacks primarily not because it was the appropriate thing to do strategically but because it was something the country could do when something had to be done. With rare exceptions, the war against terrorists cannot be fought with army tank battalions, air force wings, or naval fleets -- the large conventional forces that drive the defense budget. The main challenge is not killing the terrorists but finding them, and the capabilities most applicable to this task are intelligence and special operations forces. Improving U.S. capacity in these areas is difficult. It requires recruiting, training, and effectively deploying a limited number of talented and bold people with the relevant skills. It does not require half a trillion dollars' worth of conventional and nuclear forces.

The proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction also tops the list of current dangers to the US, though conventional military force also offers limited capabilities to address those kinds of threats.

The US should be watching the rise of China to determine the type of threat Beijing may become, though Betts says that justifying current defense spending with the spectre of a distant Chinese danger is inappropriate, and could even encourage the nation to embark on an arms race, thus accelerating the development of their military strength and increasing the peril to US interests in the region.

The correct way to hedge against the long-term China threat is by adopting a mobilization strategy: developing plans and organizing resources now so that military capabilities can be expanded quickly later if necessary. This means carefully designing a system of readiness to get ready -- emphasizing research and development, professional training, and organizational planning. Mobilization in high gear should be held off until genuine evidence indicates that U.S. military supremacy is starting to slip toward mere superiority. Deferring a surge in military production and expansion until then would avoid sinking trillions of dollars into weaponry that may be technologically obsolete before a threat actually materializes.

Some of the impetus for the current volume of defense spending comes from a sense that the US should be the world's policeman, a circumstance that creates two problems. First, American "meddling" has a tendency to generate resentment, particularly its seemingly arbitrary and sometimes hypocritical nature, which can increase the number of enemies the US would otherwise face.

Further, while US citizens support humanitarian interventions in principle, they expect them to be short and inexpensive--a demand that will likely only increase in importance in the aftermath of the Iraq war. "These two problems reinforce each other," Betts writes.

To have any chance at playing the role of benign hegemon successfully, the United States would need to be more consistent in enforcing international law, overthrowing murderous regimes, preventing governments from acquiring dangerous weapons, and so forth. But the burden of doing so would be huge, requiring national mobilization and exertion far beyond what even the most ardent interventionists ask for today. But if Washington chooses to keep the costs low by backing up its universal rhetoric with limited actions in a few easy cases, its policies will inevitably be regarded as arbitrary, capricious, or driven largely by its own material interests. An imperial role is, therefore, both unaffordable and unwise. The fact that Washington does not presently have the capabilities to sustain it should not be considered a problem.

Generating the political will to enforce fiscal discipline on the defense budget would be a difficult task, but Betts says that modest reductions for a few years, helped by a budget eroded by inflation, would be a good start, and suggests "Half a trillion dollars is more than enough" as an appropriate slogan for the campaign.

Further, he writes, "The case for cuts should be made on the principle that expensive programs must fulfill unmet needs for countering real enemy capabilities, not merely maintain traditional service priorities, pursue the technological frontier for its own sake, or consume resources that happen to be politically available."


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