An Editorial: Deficits and Defense

April 1, 1985

In a letter published in the March issue of Air Force Magazine, an Air Force officer—and a Life Member of the Air Force Association—says “we must cut the deficit” and asks where AFA would begin cutting the defense expenditures in the federal budget. Capt. Glenn A. Walsh, a KC-135 crew member, observes that our security cannot be measured in terms of military equipment alone but is also reflected in our high stan­dard of living and our continued economic prosperity. He asks, “If … we cannot sustain that, then what are we defending?”

Captain Walsh likens the government deficits to those of a family on a budget but continuing to spend more than it takes in. He insists that the deficit must be reduced, and adds that “to me, it is obvious that the Defense Department must do its part.” He acknowl­edges that he does not have the answers, but still is convinced that the greater national good requires per­sonal sacrifices (which he is willing to make, if everyone else makes them, too) and substantial cutbacks in the defense budget. He asks: “How does the Air Force Association feel about this? … AFA, where would you start?”

Notwithstanding his premise, Captain Walsh’s con­cern is sincere, and the questions he asks are being asked often these days by a great many sincere Ameri­cans. We think these questions can be answered (see AFA’s Statement of Policy in our November ’84 issue).

First, we would start by making sure that we do not stop in our determination to fix our defense inadequacies. We do not agree that the national good—or the federal deficit—requires further reductions, program stretch-outs, or cancellations within the Administra­tion’s budget requests for defense. To assert that the Defense Department “must do its part” in volunteering budget reductions makes a mockery of the serious busi­ness of preparing relevant military defenses. We agree with Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger: “If our nation is to remain safe, prosperous, and free to pursue our other important priorities, we cannot slight our security. For a nation’s security is its government’s first responsibility.”

We do not think the United States is involved in an arms race or even—in the broader context—in a defense buildup. AFA’s basic recommendations for force improvements are designed to maintain an essential bal­ance with the Soviet Union in some areas of relative strength and to redress serious imbalances in some other important areas of deterrence. This is not a buildup—it is a catch-up.

We agree that the economy of the nation is, indeed, a vital factor in national security. It is also a fact that the economic prosperity and the general standard of-living of the United States are the envy of the world. What would cause Captain Walsh to doubt that we can sustain these, if we can remain alive and free The US economy is growing, inflation is down, employment figures are headed in the right direction, and interest rates are sub­stantially more favorable than they were. The deficit notwithstanding, the American economy is hardly a basket case. And the deficit cannot be laid at the door­step of defense expenditures.

Deficit reductions through increased taxation, or sal­ary reductions, elimination of planned increases, with­holding of cost-of-living adjustments, and the like are workable only when they are widely applied and are not borne exclusively by any category of citizens or employees. To focus only on the military or other categories of employees of the government is self-defeating, and AFA opposes targeting such limited groups for reductions.

In a recent editorial about the deficit, the Washington Post—no advocate of excessive military budgets—said: “Defense spending in the mid-1980s is not nearly as high, as either a share of the budget or of the country’s total output, as it was in the late 1960s. The Reagan proposals would not raise it to that level even by the end of the decade.” The facts behind this editorial comment by the Post are that defense’s percentage of total federal spending declined steadily from 44.9% in 1969 to a nadir of 23.7% in 1979, then began a slight climb each of the next six years to an estimated 28.2% in 1985. The strate­gic force spending pattern (for ICBMs, SLBMs and submarines, and bombers—including spending for MXs, B-1s, and Captain Walsh’s own tankers) is even more dismal. Spending for strategic forces declined from an inadequate 10% of the total Defense budget in 1969 to a low of 6.6% in that disastrous budget year of 1979. It has edged up each year to an estimated 11% in 1985.

Herbert Stein, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, gets it right in a Wall Street Journal article: “The question of fairness involved is whether it is fair to risk the lives, fortunes, and freedom of future generations in order to raise the consumption level of this generation by two percentage points or so.”

From our vantage point, we know that the Defense Department has worked hard in recent years to spend its money more wisely and to improve its management of resources. There is plenty of room left for more im­provement, but the ill-conceived notion that vast sums can be saved through curbing of waste and fraud and bloat within DOD is an illusion. In general—and despite headlines to the contrary —few large organizations, in or out of government, can match the diligent management record of the Defense Department. Marginal reductions in the Defense budget can and will be made, but it is wishful thinking to believe that responsible managers can offer up sweeping cuts unless the nation consciously and willingly accepts reductions in its national security objectives—or accepts the risks of leaving some of its security and policy interests unprotected.

You and I cannot make determinations of this sort, Captain Walsh, just as we cannot determine whether to increase taxes or reduce benefits and entitlements. In our system, this is the ultimate responsibility of our Congress—and I hope Congress is never permitted to forget this responsibility. We, the people, can only stay informed, counsel, recommend—and vote. We in AFA promise you that we will continue to do all four of these things—vigorously.