Ready to Cut Military Spending

Polls show that Americans want smaller government everywhere and fewer obligations abroad.

(Page 2 of 3)

For most people, these numbers are simply too big to fathom. One way of contextualizing the cost is by looking at how fast the national security budget has grown during the last decade. In 2001, the year of the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government spent about $350 billion on defense and veterans’ affairs. If that spending had kept pace with the growth in population and inflation, it would total about $481 billion today. Current spending is 82 percent higher than that. It is no surprise that defense budgets increased after 9/11, but it is legitimate to ask if an 82 percent hike was the right amount.

Military spending today, adjusted for population and inflation, is higher than it was when Ronald Reagan left office—a time when the Soviet empire was still pointing nuclear weapons at U.S. cities. It is higher than it was in 1968, when the U.S. was fighting both the Cold War and a deadly hot war in Vietnam. Although Americans will support spending whatever it takes to defend the country, polling suggests they don’t realize how much we’re spending right now.

Only 58 percent of voters are aware that the United States spends more on defense than any other country in the world. And just 33 percent recognize that Washington spends roughly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. Military spending has grown disproportionately compared to Americans’ own priorities, dwarfing other countries in ways that could soon make taxpayers blink.

Consider: The United States spends more than $2,500 per person on national defense; Russia and our NATO allies each spend about one-fifth that amount, at a time when only 46 percent of Americans have a favorable view of NATO. In the aggregate, while the U.S. is spending close to $900 billion a year on the military and veterans’ affairs, China is coughing up less than $200 billion. North Korea, Iran, and Syria combined spend less than $30 billion. The Pentagon spends more just on research and development than Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and Japan each spend on their entire defense budgets, according to Cato Institute Vice President Christopher A. Preble’s 2009 book The Power Problem. If we are at risk militarily, it is certainly not for a lack of spending.

Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2010 that “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” The American people agree: 82 percent believe the economy is now a bigger concern than military challenges. Sooner rather than later, defense spending will have to come back in line with voter desires.

What to Cut

As with just about every aspect of the federal budget crisis, the main question is whether the political class will continue pursuing its own agenda or be forced to accept the commonsense wisdom of the American people. Following the logic of the public’s strategic preferences would lead to tremendous savings on defense.

Americans, like their political representatives, are not isolationists; 88 percent say the country’s relationship with Europe is important, for example, and 53 percent say it’s “very” important. Voters have no expressed desire to retreat from our historical idealism and sympathy for people who believe in liberty and freedom. It’s just that the citizenry rejects the political class’s post–Cold War approach to pursuing these ideals.

A Protect America First policy would mean returning to the more restrained military philosophies of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Those presidents did not hesitate to use force, but they had a more limited definition of when it was appropriate: only when vital U.S. interests were at stake.

Reagan articulated additional restrictions. Forces should not be sent without “the clear intent and support needed to win,” or without “clearly defined and realistic objectives.” And there “must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the support of the American people and Congress.” Even when those criteria were met, Reagan emphasized that “our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort.” Although the Gipper himself occasionally fell short of those ideals (circumventing Congress in Central America, for example), Americans today firmly back the guidelines he spelled out.

Aligning U.S. military strategy with public opinion would save trillions of dollars during the coming decade and dramatically reduce the debt burden we are imposing on future generations. This important realignment would put us in a better position to deal with the serious economic challenges facing the nation and reaffirm the bedrock American notion that governments derive their only just authority from the consent of the governed.

Still, it won’t be easy, given the emotions and vested interests involved. One way to tackle the problem is by breaking defense spending into its constituent chunks:

Supplemental Budget Requests. The supplemental budget for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq cost the United States $163 billion in 2010 and $181 billion in 2011. The Obama administration plans to reduce this number to about $118 billion in 2012.

Most Americans have decided that it’s time to bring these troops home within a year, much faster than either major political party currently contemplates. While such a withdrawal would need to take battlefield concerns into account, bringing policy more in line with public desires could save hundreds of billions of dollars.

Baseline Military Budget. General military spending, or the baseline budget, totaled about $530 billion for 2011. The only way to substantially reduce that number is through strategic cuts in troop levels and deployments, which could take years and may not begin to show up in reduced budgets for five or 10 years.

Scott Rasmussen the founder and president of Rasmussen Reports, is the author of The People’s Money: How Voters Will Balance the Budget and Eliminate the Federal Debt, from which this essay is adapted by permission of Threshold Editions.


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  • The Late P Brooks||

    The horror.

  • juris imprudent||

    I suggest you substitute Dept of Ag for Defense and farmers for soldiers and you probably don't have to tweak it any further. When there is a constituency for spending (and there always is), the deplorable effects of cutting that spending can be cataloged with the barest effort.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Everything can get cut and see no drop off in efficacy. Give me the axe, and I could lop off 10% of DoD and make it better. [hint, there would be a lot of flag officers, USDs and ASDs updating their LinkedIn profiles].
    However, I expect the "they'll close the Washington Monument" strategy to be fully employed (sorry about closing that base in your district, heh heh).

  • Agile Cyborg||

    As Ronald Reagan once put it, “Defense is not a budget issue. You spend what you need.”

    Ronald Reagan was also an over-rated embodiment of empty and desperate Republicanism striving for a hero. Reagan was the balloon for Republican hot air.

    What a country NEEDS for defense always culminates in what defense contractors WANT. This makes war and defense a business of illusion in the cash cow game.

  • ||

    "..warfighters.." ?

    What kind of word is that? Warriors is the word I think he was looking for. 'Warfighters' sounds like something a five year old would create to make up for a lack of vocabulary.

  • Drake||

    "Warfighters" is a Pentagon Powerpoint term.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Yeah, and if I heard it one more time, I was going to vomit from boredom. I even did two "Warfighter" Brigade level exercises at Fort Leavenworth.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    I have to say the Army's overuse of warrior where soldier used to be used and is still far more appropriate makes the bile rise in my throat.

  • R C Dean||

    I hears ya. We have a national army, not a tribal raiding party. Armies are made up of soldiers, not "warriors".

  • ||

    The term Warfighter was coined (circa 1994) to differentiate between those pulling the trigger and those serving lunch. Of course, those serving lunch found that offensive, and to be politically correct, the term morphed to include everybody.

    It was also a way to include all services (Soldiers, Airmen and Sailors) in one term.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    The only four countries that 60 percent of Americans are willing to defend are Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Israel.

    This is why you will never be able to cut defense.

  • Paleo-ConAvenger||

    Ummmm, how did you make that conclusion? Israel does spy on us, but the other three are extremely friendly nations.

  • DJF||

    Here is more vital spending, we need to build another missile defense radar in Japan. Though the article does not say why the Japanese if they want such a radar don’t build it on their own. The same with the missile defense system the US taxpayer is stuck with paying for in Europe.

  • ||

    It would be irrational to demand that the military continue policing the world with a reduced budget, but it is quite rational to expect the military to accomplish the narrower mission of Protect America First with a budget appropriate for that role.

    I fear an effects based national strategy is next to impossible when politicians use the military as political pawns. And, in my view, the nation has been moving away from effects based planning.

    During the Cold War, the threat was assessed, a strategy was created to counter the threat and then resources were obtained to implement that strategy.

    Today, system acquisition and troop levels are based upon who's district is affected by the move.

    Term limits.

  • ||

    Good article, BTW.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    'Warfighters' sounds like something a five year old would create to make up for a lack of vocabulary.

    Gender neutrality.

    "Warriors" connotes an excess of testosterone.

  • CE||

    Not necessarily, the Amazons were great warriors... oh, never mind.

  • RightNut||

    I'm not sure the official dollar to dollar comparison of military budgets is a good measure of military spending. China for example, keeps much of its military spending off the books, and also can buy/develop military hardware cheaper than the raw dollar values suggest. If you factor in the true total of Chinese military spending along with purchasing power differences, I'm sure China spends a lot more than $200 billion. Does this mean we shouldn't cut military spending? No, but it is something to consider, especially in light of China's recent aggressiveness.

    The other thing this article fails to mention prominently is the re distributive effect of US military spending. The US taxpayer pays for a military far bigger than is needed so that it can, essentially, patrol the world. The major benefactors of our military overspending are our NATO allies. The taxpayers in NATO countries essentially pay very little in taxes toward defense since US taxpayers are already paying for it. This is equivalent to defense welfare.

  • Butler||

    Fair points on Chinese purchasing power, but (1) China is well behind us and would have to play catchup for decades just to get up to speed; and (2) we have allies, many of whom are in the top 15 military spenders in the world. We don't need to spend signficantly more than China to fend off any military threat. Oh, and there's that whole nuclear deterrent thing. We have nothing to fear from these countries beyond our own provocations.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    We have nothing to fear from these countries beyond our own provocations.

    Bullcrap. When the chinese males figure out there are not enough chinese females to go around, they will come for ours. They have to have some outlet for single males.

  • ||

    Couldn't we just give them our feminists? They'd all commit suicide in a matter of weeks.


  • Ptah-Hotep||

    Couldn't we just give them our feminists?

    WMDs should only be used as as last resort.

  • Jackand Ace||

    Exactly, Butler. Its not like we only started spending 6 times as much as China on the military in only the past year or two. We have done that for a long time. And no one suggests that China will ever spend more than us, anyway.

    The website defensetech says that it would take China at least 20 years to catch up. Impossible if they never put more resources to it then we do, and no President will ever let that happen.

  • RightNut||

    Aggregate military spending over time is not really a good measure of military might. A dollar of military spending ten years ago is worth less than a dollar spent today. This is a result of upgraded weapon systems, better training, as well as spending on things like fuel, food, ect. China doesn't have to spend nearly the same amount in order to catch up to the US military. They don't need to spend on bases in tons of countries or fuel for planes and drones flying over Yemen and Pakistan 24 hours a day. China also benefits from having the US do much of its RD on technology for it, and then backwards engineering or stealing that tech.

    In short, just because the U.S. has spent say $10 trillion(not an actual figure, just for example) in the past ten years, does not mean China must spend $10 trillion to reach parity with the US.

  • Butler||

    It's all about misinformation. 90%+ of Americans would answer "no" if asked whether we should increase our national debt to defend other countries in times of peace. But, here we are, deficit spending to defend other countries in times of peace, because it's to "preserve our freedoms," or "keep us safe," or whatever other stupid political platitude the uninformed masses will believe.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    "over 200,000 troops forced from service"

    Its a jobs program?

  • Alien Invader||

    Republicans who demand cuts in every program except the military open themselves up to justifiable Democratic charges of hypocrisy.

    Yeah man, especially when Democrats never-ever do the exact same thing. Never-ever-ever-ever.

  • CE||

    “Your insistence on slashing our military to pay the tab for your irresponsible spending could see over 200,000 troops forced from service,” Romney warned.

    Sounds like a good start. Standing armies are a threat to liberty.

  • ||

    Also, NOT having standing armies is a threat to our liberty.

    Training today is too complex to have a militia. Pilots need to fly at the very least, a few times a week. I assume it's the same with all complex weapon systems. By the time you got spun up, the enemy would be eating lunch in the Rose Garden.

  • Rasilio||

    While this is true to some extent a standing Navy is provided for by the Constitution and even at half it's current size would be more than capable of sinking ever other navy in the world in a matter of a few weeks meaning our borders are effectively protected unless you expect a major land invasion from Mexico or Canada sometime soon.

    There is still that major issue that an amphibious assault across either 3000 or 5000 miles of open ocean is a MASSIVE undertaking and even without a standing army the sheer size and armed populace you would be facing means you need a HUGE invasion force to stand much chance of success and we'll see your 1000 ship fleet coming from a few hundred miles away and start dropping cruise missiles into it days before you make landfall.

  • Paleo-ConAvenger||


    I would have a professional, standing Navy, Air Force, and Marines. No Army is needed. I would keep the National Guard, but would never deploy them overseas in non-defensive wars.

    The Coast Guard is needed for offshore rescues and patrolling, but I would combine them with NOAA, since their "objectives" are about the same. Doing this would effectively get rid of the Dept of Commerce's talking points, and would make it very easy to eliminate it.

  • ||

    You'd have problems with bombers and cruise missiles.

  • Paleo-ConAvenger||

    I would have a professional, standing Navy, Air Force, and Marines. No Army is needed. I would keep the National Guard, but would never deploy them overseas in non-defensive wars.

    The Coast Guard is needed for offshore rescues and patrolling, but I would combine them with NOAA, since their "objectives" are about the same. Doing this would effectively get rid of the Dept of Commerce's talking points, and would make it very easy to eliminate it.

  • Golfinvegas||

    We have a candidate who is proposing cutting military spending as part of balancing the budget by 2013 in Gary Johnson yet Scott Rasmussen won't include him in polling??? Why is this?

    Sorry Scott, you lose complete credibility when you exclude a candidate who is on the ballot in 47 states. How about you quit being partisan with your polling. We Americans deserve to hear Gary Johnson on the debate stage alongside Obama and Romney who the last I checked wants to INCREASE military spending.

  • شات عراقنا||


  • tipuasher||

    Great work, I read the column, go on the nice work.

  • cinsel chat||

    good thanks sohbet
    cinsel sohbet


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