On nondefense missions congress must demand transparency.
The new Congress won the election by promising to cut spending, and unsurprisingly the defense budget is on the table for the first time in more than a decade.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently announced $78 billion in defense spending cuts over the next five years, including reductions in troop levels for the Army and Marine Corps. These types of cuts suggest that the military is working to become leaner and more efficient. Still, many Americans and congressmen are calling for deeper cuts.
Not counting the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Defense budget is expected to be $553 billion in 2012, up from $549 billion in 2011. That outlay currently represents 19% of the entire federal budget and over 50% of U.S. discretionary spending; cutting it would go a long way toward reining in government spending. But before further slicing the military budget, Congress must reconsider the military’s mission and what activities it should undertake.
The purpose of a large standing army is to provide for our national defense. In essence, the defense budget is an insurance policy that protects the U.S. against threats from other nations and groups. But in recent years a growing percentage of that budget has been spent on activities that don’t involve traditional national defense. These include nation-building, policing foreign nations, humanitarian missions and ferrying executive- and legislative-branch leaders and their attendants around the globe. While these activities may be tangentially related to our standing in the world, they do not enhance our war-fighting capabilities; rather they relate more to the success of our foreign policy than to our national defense.
This increase in nondefense missions has been accompanied by a dramatic shift from war-fighting to nation-building. The official White House website now describes the function of the Department of Defense as to “protect national interests through war-fighting, providing humanitarian aid and performing peacekeeping and disaster relief services.” Is war-fighting just one among the many functions we want our military to perform?
Rightly or wrongly, we give our military these various assignments because we don’t want to pay someone else to do them, and other government entities currently can’t. Yet just because our military can do these jobs doesn’t mean that it should. Indeed, these assignments shift focus away from the military’s core missions: keeping America safe and winning wars.
Right now it is difficult for Congress to determine how much money is spent on protecting the U.S. The “military” budget gives an exaggerated impression of the cost of our national defense. When Congress adds burdens to the military, direct costs like fuel, food and relief supplies may be calculated and expressed in the budget.
But these items are just a small part of these missions, and the larger costs get buried. These hidden costs include recruiting and training extra troops, purchasing and servicing additional equipment, additional layers of bureaucracy, and maintaining and enlarging bases, none of which are separated out in the budget as relating to nondefense missions.
The military’s nondefense activities may or may not be warranted, but their total costs must be transparent. If Congress does not consider these costs separately, traditional defense missions and essential equipment upgrades will be crowded out.
America is a compassionate nation and would surely engage in humanitarian activities even if their true costs were known. But why charge these costs to the defense budget and then hide them? Only by demanding that the military budget be limited to legitimate defense activities can Americans know how many dollars we are actually devoting to our national security.
Some military leaders have privately estimated that if these nondefense-related activities were eliminated or given a separate budget, defense spending could be substantially reduced and at the same time the military’s war-fighting capabilities increased. Given this uncertainty, before any additional cuts are made to military spending, Congress must demand transparency with respect to the different roles of our military.