As Congress and the White House cope with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic by passing multitrillion-dollar stimulus packages, many are already grappling with the thorny problem of how we’ll eventually pay for the spike in spending. While no one ever wants to be a bill-payer, the defense industry is predictably first out of the blocks seeking immunity from any future cuts by trotting out its favorite weapon: fear.
Don’t be fooled by this tried-and-true tactic: The claim that any cuts to the defense budget will imperil defense is gravely mistaken. Without changes in the foreign policy we enact — and a rational reform of how we spend our defense dollars — our national security will continue to decay.
First, the cold, hard economic reality: The damage done to our economy by the necessary measures federal and state governments have enacted to safeguard American lives has been breathtaking in its scope and severity. Some estimates suggest gross domestic product will contract this year by as much as 40 percent, and unemployment could balloon to 30 percent. To help stem the tide, Congress has already passed a $2 trillion stimulus package, with more yet to come.
With an already massive national debt of $24 trillion, the combination of government spending and the loss of tax revenue is going to place serious pressure on future budgets for years to come. These bills will eventually have to be paid, and no area of the budget will be free from scrutiny — including defense.
Though the Department of Defense should be funded to whatever level is required to ensure the ability of our armed forces to deter and, if necessary defeat any adversary that may seek to deprive our citizens of life or liberty, not all aspects of the status quo are helping keep us safe.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr recently co-wrote an article arguing that regardless of the financial strain imposed by the coronavirus stimulus bills, defense spending should be exempted. The reason, he says, is that the military today remains in a yearslong “free-fall” which “can’t be fixed in a year or even four.”
The last thing America’s leaders should do when responding to the financial constraints imposed by the coronavirus, he concludes, is to “weaken the military.” His implications that military readiness has been in free fall because of inadequate spending and that any reduction in defense spending weakens the military are beliefs held by many — and are inaccurate for several key reasons. Clinging to forever wars might be the biggest.
The DoD has to spend hundreds of billions annually to fight, maintain and prepare for subsequent deployments fighting the forever wars we’ve been waging for the better part of two decades.
Congress has allocated more than $2 trillion in direct outlays since 9/11 to fight so-called emergency requirements of overseas contingency operations, or OCO, and we have incurred an additional $4 trillion in associated and long-term costs. For fiscal 2020 alone, we will spend upward of an additional $137 billion on these OCO wars.
What is critical to understand, however, is that the perpetual continuation of these wars not only fails to improve our security — these fights negatively impact our ability to focus on and prepare for fighting adversaries that could one day pose an existential threat to us. The implications of this reality are considerable — and potential remedies can be of great help to our country.
If President Donald Trump were to order an end to some or all of our unnecessary forever wars, we could instantly save more than $100 billion a year without cutting anything else in the defense budget. If we then conducted prudent and necessary reforms in how we manage research and development, procurement, and acquisition, and in shedding unnecessary or outdated expenditures, tens of billions of additional savings could be realized.
Perhaps more importantly we could redirect much more focus and resources on training and professional education, which would enable the armed forces to better deter — and if necessary defeat — major opponents. Those two major changes alone would end the weakening of our military and materially contribute to strengthening its key capabilities — while lessening pressure on the federal budget.
The financial pressures this coronavirus is already placing on our nation’s finances is real, and its effects will be felt for years. We will have to make hard decisions in the days ahead on where we spend our limited resources. If we are wise, we can reduce how much we spend on defense while simultaneously increasing our military power.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities. He retired from the Army in 2015 after 21 years in service that included four combat deployments.