Second Opinion

Jan. 1, 2007

Underwhelmed by the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, Rep. Duncan Hunter had the House Armed Services Committee conduct its own in-depth look at US defense needs. The result—a dense and detailed 121-page report—hit the streets on Dec. 6.

It deserves more attention than it has received. Hunter, the California Republican who chaired the panel until the Democratic takeover of Congress, produced an impressive document. It pulls no punches. Indeed, it sets a benchmark for future debate.

This “Committee Defense Review” warns flatly that the US has insufficient military forces. Unlike the QDR, the CDR did not set a budget level and back into its force levels. Rather, it looked at requirements first, unconstrained by fiscal “realities.”

This politically dangerous technique produced eye-watering force structure conclusions. The US, said the report, should have:

Fifteen Air Force air and space expeditionary forces—not 10, as the QDR authorized—requiring some 500 additional fighters.

More long-range bombers, airlifters, tankers, and ISR systems.

Seventy-eight Army brigade combat teams, eight more than the QDR thought was needed.

Fifteen Navy carrier battle groups (not the 11 blessed by the QDR), at least 55 attack submarines (up from 48), and many more amphibious ships.

Forty-three Marine Corps infantry battalions—not the 33 that were prescribed by the QDR.

This huge force expansion would consume scores of billions of dollars. The CDR said the additions would permit the US to wage a Global War on Terrorism and, if need be, fight and win two regional wars at the same time. Otherwise, it warned, the US couldn’t hack it.

Not since the Reagan buildup of the early 1980s has DOD sought force structure increases, mostly because they are costly. This, however, did not faze CDR members, who noted, “The United States is a wealthy country. Such expansion is hardly unprecedented.”

The CDR’s “second opinion” about force structure stemmed from two bedrock strategic conclusions.

First, the House panel warned, the GWOT is a long-term mission. The “nexus of terrorism and radical Islam” poses “one of the gravest threats” we face, it said, yet, strangely, “defense and budget planners appear to believe that the current demand for military forces in the GWOT is an aberration” and that it “will subside over time.” This is unlikley, said the CDR.

Second, said the CDR, conventional “state-on-state conflict remains a significant element of the security environment.” It is not, as some argue, being replaced by “irregular” GWOT missions. In fact, said the CDR, “the [conventional] requirement may have increased” because aggressors “see opportunities to exploit the US commitment” to fighting global terror networks.

In this vein, the panel presented four “scenarios of concern” it saw as “drivers for US military force structure.” They were: a conventional North Korean invasion of South Korea, a US-China military showdown over Taiwan, regime collapse in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and development of nuclear weapons in Iran.

Though the US realizes it might have to fight two of these conflicts at the same time, “force structure reductions and low modernization budgets during the 1990s created unacceptable levels of risk” for the nation today, said the CDR.

For all that, the armed services themselves are not likely even to seek—much less get—more force structure.

There is a myth that defense budgets are built around valid requirements, but the opposite is true. Politicians come up with an acceptable budget amount and expect the armed forces to live within it. In this situation, an increase in force structure here would only shift the pain elsewhere, and, for that reason, the services always fall in line.

The true problem is the concept of “affordability,” and the way in which official Washington defines it.

Today, one commonly hears complaints about “record” defense budgets and “heavy” war costs. Many requests for validated defense needs—new weapons, more force structure, and so forth—are shot down on grounds they are “unaffordable.”

That being the case, we would like to make a few points about affordability.

For the taxpayer, defense has rarely been more affordable, because the economic burden rarely has been lighter. True, DOD spends lots of money—$512 billion last year on the basic force program and the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even that expenditure, however, consumed only 3.9 percent of the nation’s $13 trillion gross domestic product—a far smaller share than in most of the past 65 years.

In 1944—the height of World War II—the military consumed 36 percent of a much smaller economy. The figure during the Korean War was about 11 percent and in Vietnam about nine percent. It was not until 1991, after the Cold War, that the figure even dipped below five percent of GDP.

While military spending today consumes less than four percent of GDP, federal outlays on entitlement and benefits programs are at historic highs, taking about 13.1 percent of all national wealth. That is a rise of more than two full percentage points since the end of the Cold War.

The fact that social spending now more than triples defense outlays says a lot about American priorities, not to mention the whole question of what is, or is not, “affordable.”

Hunter said that 55 House Armed Services Committee members participated in the CDR process.

Note that, in the end, the CDR report was signed by Republican members only. The Democrats withheld their names from the final document. In explanation, a Democrat spokesman uttered a vague comment about “unrealistic force structure outcomes.”

Raising the defense share of GDP by a single percentage point—from four to five percent—would generate a $130 billion boost this year. That would be enough to start rebuilding the force as the CDR suggests.

Stronger defenses are only as unaffordable as we want them to be.