Budget Truth

Oct. 1, 2000

For the first time in more than 10 years, defense is an issue in a Presidential election campaign. Both sides agree that a defense increase is necessary, but they differ enormously in their recollections of where the shortage came from.

“The current Administration inherited a military ready for the dangers and challenges facing our nation,” said Republican George W. Bush Aug. 21. “The next President will inherit a military in decline.”

The next day, Democrat Al Gore replied that “these past eight years, as a member of the National Security Council, I have worked to reverse the decline in defense spending. … I’m proud that we finally reversed the defense cuts begun in the previous Administration with a safe, long-term increase in defense spending.”

The New York Times then informed us that, “adjusted for inflation, the United States still spends about 95 percent as much for defense as it did during the Cold War, though it now faces sharply reduced threats.”

The things you read in the newspapers are breathtaking, but some assertions go further afield. Pentagon gadfly Chuck Spinney is circulating a chart that depicts the current defense budget as almost four times as large as during the Vietnam War. (Spinney leaps to his conclusion by ignoring the effects of 525 percent cumulative inflation since 1968.)

Here’s what really happened. Figures are fiscal year Department of Defense budget authority, and to allow comparison, all are expressed in constant Fiscal 2001 dollars.

The Vietnam War budgets peaked at $400.6 billion in 1968. A steady decline followed, and it did not stop until the ensuing “hollow force” had become a national scandal. From 1975 to 1980, budgets floundered between $273 billion and $297 billion. Airplanes stood idle on the ramp for want of parts. Veteran service members fled the ranks. It was this brief, sorry period that the New York Times chose for its comparison. The present defense budget is about the same as the hollow force budgets.

The correction came with the “Reagan Recovery,” which peaked at $436.4 billion in 1985. By 1986, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings movement to reduce the federal deficit was in full swing, and Congress declared President Reagan’s defense budget proposal “DOA,” or Dead on Arrival. After that, the defense budget dropped more each year until 1999.

President Bush inherited a defense program that was already down by 10 percent. Mainly because the Cold War had ended-but also because of continuing Gramm-Rudman-Hollings pressures–the Bush Administration devised the “Base Force.” The plan was to gradually cut force structure and personnel strength by 25 percent below Cold War levels. Opposition leaders in Congress wanted even stiffer reductions. The final Bush defense budget was $318.4 billion in 1993.

Two months after taking office, the Clinton Administration proclaimed an additional cut of $214 billion, spread out over six years. The announcement was made without calculation of feasibility or impact, so the Pentagon hastily launched the “Bottom Up Review” in search of a credible defense program that would fit the budget that had been declared.

No such solution could be found, so the reductions actually implemented were somewhat less severe. Even so, President Clinton proposed seven defense budget cuts in a row. And each year, Congress appropriated more than he requested.

The low point came in 1998, at $277.2 billion. The next year, the Administration announced a $110 billion budget increase spread out over six years.

Part of the purported increase hung on gimmicks, counting adjustments, and economic assumptions, and most of it did not fall due until after the turn of the century, in effect an IOU written on a future Administration. Clinton’s 2001 budget proposal, submitted last January, was for $291.1 billion.

  • Presidents and Administrations do not set budgets alone. Over the past 20 years, Congress added $45.9 billion to President Carter’s defense proposals, cut Reagan’s by $216 billion, and cut Bush’s by $22.9 billion. So far, Congress added $73.7 billion to Clinton’s.
  • Whether the New York Times realizes it or not, the policy of “Engagement and Enlargement” abroad has the armed forces scrambling to maintain an operational tempo four times that of the Cold War. That was not anticipated in the Base Force reduction of 25 percent. It is now made all the harder since the force cut has reached 40 percent. Recruiting and retention problems are back, big time.
  • The armed forces are not adequately sized, equipped, or funded to fight two overlapping major theater wars, which they are supposed to be able to do. In fact, the force was stressed by a single theater conflict, and a limited one at that, in Kosovo in 1999.
  • Today’s military equipment is old, wearing out, and is not being replaced. Investment in new technology is lagging. Needed systems compete with each other for what money is available. On this course, our technological advantage will soon begin to diminish.
  • Without question, US armed forces are best in the world, but they are held to a higher standard than the rest of the world’s forces. Unless we are ready to give up the role of world leadership, we had better be prepared to go further, strike harder, and prevail faster.

Whoever wins the Presidential election should have that engraved on the insides of his eyelids before he moves into the White House.