The GOP Candidates and Military Spending

January 29, 2016
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Quite a number of media fact-checkers tripped over Ted Cruz’s claim in last night’s debate that Barack Obama had “dramatically degraded our military,” and Marco Rubio’s related pledge to rebuild a U.S. military that is “being diminished.”

The Dallas Morning News noted that “amounts spent on weapons modernization are about the same as they were when Republican George W. Bush was president.” Meanwhile, to the extent that the military’s budget “is being squeezed,” they wrote, it is because of “the insistence of lawmakers in both parties that money be spent on bases and equipment that the Pentagon says it doesn’t need.”

Politico’s Bryan Bender (accessible to Politico Pro subscribers), concluded that while Cruz’s “facts may hold up to scrutiny…they are nonetheless misleading.” Bender pointed out that “Military technology has advanced significantly in the last quarter century and combat aircraft and warships are much more precise and pack a more powerful punch.” Politifact agreed, rating Cruz’s claim “Mostly False.”

Ultimately, alas, whether the U.S. military has been severely degraded is a judgment call. Relative to what? And when? And what does that mean for U.S. security?

But while the answers to such questions are subjective, the facts on spending are not. Undaunted by the realization that committed partisans are unlikely to be converted by them, I’m also doing my part to try to inject some facts into the debate over the Pentagon’s budget. A few weeks ago, I posed five sets of questions to the candidates at The National Interest’s Blog, The Skeptics, including, for those calling for more military spending:

Why would you spend more? What is the United States unable to do right now to preserve its security because it isn’t spending enough? To what extent is insufficient military strength the critical factor explaining America’s inability to achieve satisfactory results with respect to an array of challenges, from destroying ISIS, to repairing failed states, to halting North Korea’s nuclear program?

This morning at TNI, I offered my take on whether lower military spending as a share of GDP is to blame for the U.S. military’s supposed precipitous decline. I’m skeptical.

For one thing, the Pentagon’s base budget, excluding the costs of our recent wars, remains near historic highs. Under the bipartisan Budget Control Act passed in 2011, and as amended in 2013 and late 2015, U.S. taxpayers will spend more on the military in each of the next five years ($510 billion) than we spent, on average, during the Cold War ($460 billion). Those figures are adjusted for inflation. And the actual gap between what we spend now, and what we spent then, will be larger, because the BCA doesn’t cover war costs.

Meanwhile, it isn’t even true that spending under Barack Obama is lower than under George W. Bush. In inflation-adjusted dollars, military spending – both war and non-war – averaged $606 billion per year during Bush’s two terms in office; under Obama, it has averaged $668 billion. The United States will have spent nearly $500 billion more in the period 2009-2016 than from 2001-2008 ($4.8 trillion vs. $5.3 trillion).

So the most important question, it seems, is “Why is more spending leading to – in Cruz’s estimation (and Rubio and Jeb Bush and any other candidate that wants to spend more on the military) – less capability? A smaller Army. A smaller Navy. Fewer Air Force planes.

Do fewer troops and ships and planes imply that the military is dramatically degraded? Not necessarily. The troops are better trained than a generation ago. The ships are more capable. The weapons are more accurate.

We should not assume that less military spending – if spending did decline – would necessarily lead to a less capable military. Meanwhile, there are many possible explanations for why militaries degrade over time – for example, fighting foolish, unnecessary wars. Far fewer American troops are being killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan now than in 2008.

I conclude at TNI:

it isn’t obvious that a more costly force is needed to preserve U.S. security and protect vital U.S. interests. That we are spending less as a share of GDP than at some points in U.S. history does not necessarily mean that we should spend more. It could also be true that we are spending less and getting more, or that we could safely get by with less. Once we get beyond the confusion over different ways to measure our spending, let’s examine what the U.S. military truly must do in order to keep Americans safe, and how much that will cost.

Read the whole thing here.

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