Ready to Cut Military Spending

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

(Page 3 of 3)

Still, the biggest savings available here can be found in the yawning gap between the 56 nations we are obliged to protect and the 12 countries a majority of Americans supports defending. If the global mission is reduced, the cost will be too. Simply put, fewer troops are needed to defend the United States than are needed to police the world. Just bringing home U.S. troops currently deployed in Western Europe and Japan would result in direct savings of about $25 billion per year.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged in 2010 at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Exposition “the massive overmatch the U.S. already enjoys,” asking: “Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities.” A Protect America First strategy would concentrate fleets closer to home and reduce the number of aircraft carriers, airplanes, submarines, support staff, and sailors.

All of these changes would reduce procurement budgets because the military wouldn’t need as many new weapons, ships, and aircraft each year. Considering that there are more than 80 weapons systems that cost more than $1 billion a year, reducing procurement would lead to real savings overnight. Training and recruiting costs would also go down, as would administrative costs and the number of civilian support personnel.

Veterans’ Affairs. If we cut back on the number of soldiers today, we cut back on the number of veterans we need to serve in the future. If we suffer fewer casualties now, we will have fewer disability payments, lower medical costs, and fewer survivors’ benefits in the future.

It sounds pretty basic, and it is. But the impact is huge. By reducing the number of soldiers today, we will reduce the total spending burden we are passing on to future generations by trillions of dollars. Consider these facts, from Cato’s Christopher Preble: “Of the 700,000 men and women who served in the Gulf War, 45 percent filed for disability benefits, and 88 percent of these requests were approved. On average, disabled Gulf War veterans receive $6,506 every year; this amounts to $4.3 billion paid out annually by the U.S. government.” That’s the cost paid every year for veterans of just one military engagement.

The savings won’t show up right away in reduced budgets, since today’s budget reflects the price we pay for yesterday’s veterans. But as with other unfunded liabilities, that accounting issue says more about the faulty way we measure federal budgets and deficits than it does about the magnitude of the savings.

Even with all these reductions, the U.S. would enjoy an unmatched capability in military strength and technology.

A New Balance

By reducing the number of strategic commitments in places such as Europe and Japan, we can return military spending to 2001 levels, adjusted for population and inflation. Some might balk at setting targets for defense spending and then expecting the military to fit within those parameters, but that’s exactly what Dwight Eisenhower did in the 1950s. Ike recognized the need to balance military power with domestic resources. 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.

These reductions would still allow around $420 billion in annual military spending, nearly three times as much as what China or anybody else in the world currently shells out. And that spending level would be much more in line with voter preferences. If anything, it might be a bit on the high side: Just 25 percent of voters believe the United States should always spend at least three times as much as any other nation; 40 percent think such a target is excessive.

Once the initial cutbacks and savings have been fully implemented over five to 10 years, it would be essential to set in place some long-term budgetary discipline within a more rational federal spending outlook. As long as the strategic environment remains the same, annual military spending increases should be pegged to population growth and inflation. If a new military rival emerged, obviously, it would be time for a new strategic assessment. But as of 2012 it’s difficult to envision a serious military rival that could threaten the territory of the United States.

There is no magic to choosing the 2001 defense budget as a starting point, but it does have the advantage of clarifying the strategic choices. If we spend as much today as we did in 2001 but reduce our legacy commitments from the World War II era, we could cut overall spending levels while devoting additional resources to fighting the challenges of the post-9/11 world.

The specifics of how to recalculate defense spending should be the focus of intense debate and experimentation. Voters clearly believe the focus should be more on defending the United States rather than the whole world. Substantial resources would still be deployed to address the terrorist threat and probably also to help secure the southern border of the United States.

Many on both sides of the partisan and ideological divides will be unhappy with this approach to military spending. That’s especially true of a political elite that supports the Send Americans First status quo. For them, there is a simple solution: If you don’t like the Protect America First strategy, go to your boss, the American people. If there are arguments to be made for a wider U.S. engagement and for interventions in places such as Libya, make them. If there are reasons to leave U.S. troops in Europe forever, state them. If we need to spend more, build support for the taxes needed to finance that spending.

But don’t sacrifice America’s greatest asset—our commitment to self-governance—to pursue a far more aggressive and costly military strategy than the American people are willing to support. Americans have rejected Washington’s bipartisan foreign policy. It’s time for politicians to take the hint. 

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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