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Rebuttal: 10 myths about defense spending

The opponents of a strong defense are spreading many myths about defense spending to mislead the public and induce it to support deep defense cuts. This is dangerous, because uninformed decisions always tend to be bad ones, and intellectual disarmament always leads to actual disarmament.

For that reason, I’ve prepared this rebuttal of the 10 myths about defense spending which, by my experience, are most widespread right now.

Myth #1: Sequestration (the planned $600 bn additional defense spending cut slated to kick in on January 2nd, on top of all defense cuts already implemented or scheduled) would be a mere cut in the rate of defense spending growth.

Fact: Sequestration would not be a mere cut in defense spending growth; quite the contrary. It would take defense spending from today’s level of $535 bn down to a paltry $469 bn in January, and from that point, defense spending would not come even close to today’s level for at least a decade, and probably longer than that. A decade from now, in FY2022, defense spending would still be at $493 bn, $42 bn below today’s level. Vide this CBO report (Table 1-4 on page 11) and this CBO graph. Even without sequestration, defense spending will not return to today’s level until FY2018 at the earliest… assuming the Congress doesn’t cut defense any further, which is unlikely.

Myth #2: Sequestration still leaves the defense secretary much latitude to make the required cuts and excludes war spending.

Fact: It doesn’t. The BCA says clearly that if sequestration is triggered, all non-exempt DOD accounts (including war spending) are to be cut by the same percentage (15%). Only personnel spending and bases in the US are exempt. The SECDEF would be required everything by the same percentage (as made clear by the White House report on the subject), the waste along with the necessities. Even Sen. Coburn knows that and opposes sequestration for that reason.

If sequestration proceeds, the DOD has as much possibility to shift money between accounts and avoid deep cuts as the female body has of shutting down pregnancy in case of rape. In other words, none.

Myth #3: Sequestration would only return defense spending to FY2006 or FY2007 levels.

Fact: Sequestration would set defense spending back by an entire decade, to the lowest level since FY2003, when it was $468 bn in real terms. In FY2004, the base defense budger was $473 bn in today’s money, i.e. more than what the DOD would have under sequestration. For details, see here. In FY2003, China’s and Russia’s military buildups (which, by now, have exceeded any legitimate self-defense requirements)

Myth #4: We spend more on defense than all other countries in the world (or the next top 10 spenders) combined.

Fact: No, we don’t. The next biggest military spender, China,

is extremely opaque about its military spending, hiding large portions of it outside its military budget – so we have to rely on unofficial estimates. The DOD estimated that in FY2011, China’s military budget was at ca. $160 bn, while SIPRI estimated it to be $143 bn. In fact, in FY2007, the DOD estimated the People’s Liberation Army’s budget to be between $ bn and $140 bn. (See the graph below.)

In 2012, the DOD estimates that Beijing’s military budget is between $160 bn and $250 bn, and that’s before PPP differences are accounted for. As Bill Gertz writes:

“The official figure for Chinese defense spending is considered by the Pentagon and other non-government specialists to be far lower than actual spending, which has been estimated to be at least $160 billion and as high as $250 billion a year. (…)

Last year, China announced a 12.7 percent increase in defense spending to about $91.5 billion. The boost “continues more than two decades of sustained annual increases in China’s announced military budget,” the Pentagon said in August.

The Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese military stated that China actually spent more than $160 billion in 2010, noting that Chinese military secrecy makes estimates difficult.”

But even the PDA’s Carl Conetta, a supporter of deep defense cuts, estimates China’s military budget, with PPP differences, to be $240 bn. This is a stark contrast to Beijing’s official figure of $100 bn for 2012.

So according to the DOD, the SIPRI, and the PDA, China’s military budget as of 2011 was far higher than $89 bn and is even higher this year. In fact, the DOD says China spent $160 bn on its military as early as 2010, and even more than that in 2011 and this year.

China also leaves most personnel and operational costs off the PLA’s budget, and many other military expenditures, along with off-the-books sources of income, such as those from PLA farms. GlobalSecurity.org has more on that subject here. AirPowerAustralia correctly writes that:

“The oft quoted comparisons between the United States and PRC defence budgets produce a misleading picture of the relative scale of investments, especially in terms of equipment recapitalisation. Chinese aggregate defence budgets as cited reflect primarily capital equipment acquisition and support costs, while many infrastructure and personnel costs are born by regional governments. United States budgets tend to carry a significant fraction of operational costs which have been unusually high over the last decade due to the ongoing global conflict with Islamo-fascist insurgent movements.”

All of which means that China’s annual military budget is much higher than what Beijing admits to and what the IISS claims, and then has to be multipled by a factor of at least 2 or 3 to account for PPP differences. Therefore, if China’s military budget for FY2012 was $250 bn (the DOD’s high-end estimate), and if we assume that in China one dollar can buy 3 times more than in the US, China already outspends the US in military expenditures by $750 bn to $645 bn, i.e. by more than $100 bn, if PPP differences are accounted for.

But even if PPP differences are not accounted for, the next 10 top spenders combined (China, Russia, the UK, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Brazil, and Italy) outspend the US in military expenditures. Their respective military budgets this year arre as follows: $250 bn, $71.9 bn, $62.7 bn, $62.5 bn, $59.3, $48.2 bn, $46.8 bn, $46.7 bn, $35.4 bn, $34.5 bn (and that’s AFTER the deep cuts made in the British, German, and Italian defense budgets in recent years). The figure for China ($250 bn) is from the DOD (as cited here) and the figures for the other 9 countries come from SIPRI’s 2012 Yearbook for military spending, as cited by Wikipedia.

Together, these countries’ military budgets add up to $718 bn, far more than America’s military budget for FY2012 ($645 bn) or FY2011 ($688 bn).

In fact, the top 8 after-USA military spenders collectively outspend the US at $648.1 bn to America’s $645 bn.

Myth #5: Our total military budget has more than doubled since 9/11 and now exceeds $700 bn per year.

Fact: No, it hasn’t and it doesn’t. On 9/11 (i.e. in FY2001), the defense budget (when there was no supplemental war funding and no GWOT) was $291.1 bn in nominal (then-year) dollars, i.e. $390 bn in real terms (inflation-adjusted dollars) according to the DOL’s inflation calculator. In FY2012, the base defense budget was $531 bn, i.e. 36% more in real terms than in FY2001, and the total military budget (including war spending and all of the DOE’s defense-related programs) amounted to $645 bn, per the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act. The FY2012 Defense Appropriations Act appropriated even less, $633 bn. America has never had a $700 bn military budget. Not in FY2012. Not ever. In FY2011, the peak year, military spending came close to but did not reach (let alone exceed) $700 bn, peaking at $688 bn before declining to $645 bn in FY2012.

If the FY2013 NDAA is passed as reported by the Senate Armed Services Committee, defense spending will decline further to $613 bn this FY.

Myth #6: Defense spending has so far avoided any serious scrutiny, tough choices, or real cuts.

Fact: On the contrary, defense spending is scrutinized by Congress every year – with lawmakers usually passing less than what DOD requests – and has already been cut repeatedly during the last 4 years. In 2009 and 2010, the DOD killed over 50 crucial weapon programs, including the F-22, the C-17, the Airborne Laser, the EP-X aircraft, the Zumwalt class DDG, the CGX cruiser, the Multiple Kill Vehicle, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, and the AC-X gunship. In 2011, Secretary Gates announced $178 bn in efficiencies and cuts, which included cuts to bureaucracies, troop layoffs, and weapon program closures. And earlier this year, complying with the Budget Control Act, Secretary Panetta announced another $487 bn in cuts, including weapon program closures, cuts to cruiser, fighter, attack jet, airlifter, and other platform fleets, and the layoff of 80,000 troops. Any claim that the DOD has not “taken stuff out of its budget”, or has so far been exempt from scrutiny and budget cuts, or has not yet had to make tough choices, is a blatant lie.

Republicans agreed to all of these cuts, plus to the New START unilateral nuclear arms cuts treaty, which also belies the myth that defense is Republicans’ “third rail” or “their Medicare”.

Myth #7: We can make deep cuts in defense spending without jeopardizing national security.

Fact: Deep cuts are exactly that – deep cuts. While there is some waste in the DOD’s (and every government agency’s) budget, there isn’t enough waste in it to pay for deep defense spending cuts. Claims to the contrary, like other myths about defense spending, are made by those who want to mislead the public and lull it into a false sense of security by misleading it into thinking that deep defense cuts can be made safely, without adverse national security consequences.

But they are wrong, because as stated above, while there is some waste in the DOD’s (and every government agency’s) budget, there isn’t enough waste in it to pay for deep defense spending cuts. Dramatic defense budget cuts would mean deep cuts in one or more of the following:

  • Military personnel and their salaries and benefits;
  • The force structure of the military services (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard);
  • Operations and training (including flight hours, ship steaming days, and vehicle miles);
  • The maintenance of existing equipment and bases;
  • The development and acquisition of new, badly needed equipment.

Which do you choose, folks? Because that’s what you’d have to cut deeply if you support deep defense budget cuts. “Waste” is a drop in the bucket. (And no, crucial weapon programs such as the Next Generation Bomber and the V-22 Osprey are not “waste”, contrary to what groups like POGO, TCS, and the NTU claim.)

Myth #8: We could make big savings if we just withdrew our troops from all foreign countries they are stationed in.

Fact: Doing so would not save a penny. The little dirty secret that the “noninterventionist” crowd won’t tell you is that bringing the troops home won’t save a penny. That’s because doing so would require not only bringing them and their equipment physically back to the US, but also building new bases and homes for them, as well as schools for their children. This would far outweigh the meagre savings resulting from closing bases abroad. Moreover, in many countries, such as Japan and South Korea, the US military is compensated for being there and military construction costs are shared with allies.

This is, of course, besides the adverse security consequences of retrenching behind oceans and reverting to an isolationist posture, which would mean dumping all of America’s allies and leaving them for potential aggressors like China, Russia, and North Korea to attack.

Myth #9: Cutting military spending deeply would bring about huge savings.

Fact: On the contrary, deep defense cuts would bring about relatively small (compared to the budget deficit’s size) savings, while gravely weakening the military and thus undermining national security for the reasons stated above. The budget deficit for FY2012 was $1.3 trillion. Cutting the military budget by $300 bn per year would still leave trillion dollar deficits for every year till kingdom come.

Even eliminating the military budget entirely would fail to even halve the budget deficit, let alone to eliminate it, as this Heritage Foundation graph proves.

Myth #10: We have to cut everything deeply, including defense, to balance the budget.

Fact: No, defense DOES NOT have to be cut deeply to balance the budget, as proven by the budget plans of Chairman Paul Ryan, the Republican Study Committee, Sen. Pat Toomey, and Sen. Mike Lee. That’s because these budget plans prioritize defense – the federal government’s #1 Constitutional duty – and cut other government programs (including unconstitutional ones) much deeper.

The “we have to cut everything dramatically” meme is being spread only by those who want to see deep defense cuts for their own sake and those who are unable to propose any specific cuts of government programs according to Constitutionality, usefulness, or performance. Some of these people are intellectually unable to do this, others are unable or unwilling to do so for political reasons. All of them are wrong, however. Their preferred “salami-slicing” approach of cutting everything equally (or even worse, cutting defense deeper than anything else, which is what is scheduled to happen under current law) is the most politically expendient, and national-security-wise, most destructive approach.

I hope this analysis has been useful to you. Here is a rebuttal of 10 other popular myths about defense spending.

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