Bottoming Out

April 1, 1995

The defense budget has been falling now for ten straight years. It long ago crashed through the safety net configuration, called the “Base Force,” established by the Bush Administration. Military and civilian personnel strength is diminishing at the rate of 15,000 a month. Top Pentagon officials insist that the smaller force can do the job, but their optimism is not universally shared. The operational ranks are looking thin.

Air Force fighter forces, for example, have been knocked down by almost fifty percent and the bomber forces by seventy percent. USAF active-duty strength is dropping toward 382,000, thirty-seven percent below the Cold War peak. The Air Force has not purchased a combat aircraft of any kind since 1994. It will not purchase another one until 1998. A shortage is developing in the attrition reserve. Without more aircraft, the Air Force will not be able to maintain its reduced complement of twenty fighter wing equivalents beyond the turn of the century.

A war-gaming exercise called “Nimble Dancer” says that despite the reductions, US armed forces will be able, as prescribed by national defense strategy, to fight and win two near-simultaneous conflicts. As it turns out, Nimble Dancer assumed some capabilities the armed forces do not have yet. It also assumed that some risky parts of the plan-such as shuttling critical aircraft from one conflict to the other-will work as well in battle as in a war-gaming exercise.

Clinton Administration officials tell us the decline in the defense program is nearly over. The budget will begin to level out in 1998, having fallen, after inflation, by forty-one percent over a period of thirteen years. Military personnel reductions will finally end in 1999. At the turn of the century, the United States will spend 2.8 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on defense, compared with 11.9 percent of GDP for defense in the 1950s.

The bottom may be in sight, but we are not there yet. The defense budget submitted in February is $6.6 billion less than the previous one. It would have been lower still except that the Administration, crowded by the new Republican majority in Congress, has added $25 billion-most of it in delayed spending-to the defense program over the next six years.

The issue is not an absence of requirements. As Rep. Floyd D. Spence (R-S. C.), chairman of the House National Security Committee, says, “We are using our military forces in more places for more purposes than ever before.” Responding to a critical editorial in the New York Times, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said the nation cannot back away from the two-conflict standard. “In fact, twice last year, President Clinton was prepared to commit troops against well-armed adversaries to protect foreign policy goals,” he said.

Nor is it a matter of general frugality in government. As the defense budget drops another notch this year, overall federal outlays will rise by 4.7 percent. Total outlays have increased every year since 1965. It is a matter of priorities–and perhaps one of attitude. Chairman Spence makes the point that “this Administration needs and uses the military, yet it is unwilling to pay for it.”

The President declares his regard for the armed forces, but his policies do not bear him out. Always, it seems, the grand gesture is reserved for someone else. Although Pentagon programs are underfunded and US troops are using food stamps to subsist, President Clinton wanted to give $25,000 housing vouchers to 5,000 Russian military officers as an inducement to leave the Baltics and go back home. The Administration pushed that proposal until the new Congress summarily stripped away the money for it.

Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) charges that at a time when the United States was paying for the salaries, housing, and benefits of troops from Bangladesh, Guatemala, and Nepal on duty in Haiti, US armored crews at Fort Hood, Texas, conducted exercises on foot for economy reasons, pretending (“Clank, clank, I’m a tank”) they were operating real armored vehicles.

The proposition that military reductions will bottom out in a few years is not selling all that well. On February 25, a bipartisan group of eighty-seven congressmen wrote to Speaker of the House Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) expressing their concern about the gaps between defense funding and mission requirements and saying that the decline in defense expenditures “must be reversed.”

It has been a long time coming, but the realization is setting in that defense cuts have gone too far. The end of the Cold War did not make the world benign, nor did it eliminate the need for a strong US defense program. Only the foolish believe that our troubles all lie behind us.

Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying to the Senate a few months ago, observed that “No man or woman has ever completed a twenty-year military career when this nation did not engage in armed conflict at least once. In the past eight years, no man or woman has even completed a term of enlistment without this happening.”