For This We Pay $300 Billion?


In all their battling over the defense budget, the administration and Congress are forgetting the most important question: How much real defense are we getting for our $300 billion? Unfortunately, the answer is, pretty damn little.

Yes, there is waste in the Defense Department. The Grace Commission identified tens of billions of possible annual savings from sensible measures like multiyear contracting, more-competitive procurement practices, privatizing commissaries, and closing unneeded military bases.

But it is only when you analyze where the defense dollar goes that you begin to see how little bang we get for our bucks. First of all, only one-seventh of the defense budget goes for nuclear forces. That means, of course, that the other 86 percent goes for conventional forces. What are those forces for?

According to the government's own figures, 65 percent of the entire defense budget (and most of those conventional forces) goes to defend Europe and Southeast Asia (Japan and South Korea). And the bulk of that is spent on NATO. In 1983 the average French citizen paid $310 in taxes for defense; the average German, $360; the average Briton, $450. But the poor American paid $920. Of that, $524 went to defend Europe, $74 to defend Japan and South Korea, and only $322 to defend this country. That's right—the average American spends more of his tax dollars defending Europe than does the average European!

But the picture is even worse than those numbers suggest. What is the threat to our own country that Americans are spending so much to defend against? A land invasion? Preposterous. An amphibious assault? Ludicrous. The only real threat to this country is that of a nuclear attack. And what defense do we have against that?

None. Zero. Zilch.

We have no defense against Soviet bombers or cruise missiles. We have no antiballistic missile (ABM) defenses against Soviet missiles. And we have essentially no civil defense against the aftereffects of a nuclear attack. (The Soviets, by contrast, have all three forms of defensive systems.) Our only form of defense against a nuclear attack is the threat of massive nuclear retaliation.

So the bottom line is this: We are spending $300 billion a year but getting practically no defense against the only real threat to our survival. At a time of massive budget deficits, it seems clear that defense spending must also be cut. But that makes it all the more imperative to insist that the dollars we do spend actually go to defend us. That calls for completely rethinking present defense priorities.

Our most urgent need is to defend against nuclear assault, not by threatening annihilation but by disabling an enemy's attack. That means building defensive systems against the various threats. We don't need to wait for the perfection of high-tech, "Star Wars" weaponry like railguns, particle beams, or X-ray lasers. Available right now are medium-tech systems for both earth-based and space-based defense, along the lines proposed by the High Frontier people. Some very substantial initial defense against nuclear attack could be provided by such systems, coupled with construction of fallout shelters, at a cost of about $250 billion over a 10-year period—about $25 billion a year. Meanwhile, of course, R&D on the high-tech systems should continue.

How would the money to build these defensive systems be raised, at a time when we cannot afford to expand the defense budget? There are two principal means: get our allies off the dole, and eliminate marginal big-ticket offensive systems.

Western Europe has a gross national product 35 percent larger than ours ($3.5 trillion versus $2.6 trillion in 1980). It can easily afford to defend itself—if its political leaders can be convinced that the days of defense welfare are over. The way to do that is to set up a definite timetable for withdrawing our troops and weapons—for instance, 10 percent a year for 10 years—and stick to it.

To be sure, even if we demobilized most of the troops as they came home, we would not save the full $177 billion a year (1985 budget numbers) allocated to NATO. Most of the naval forces, for example, should remain in service, and a lot of the army equipment should go to the reserves. But if even half of that sum were eliminated, that's $88 billion a year once the transition is completed. And even the first year's $8.8 billion, the second year's $17 billion, and so on would quickly add up to major savings.

(The NATO alliance, please note, was never intended to be permanent. It has a one-year-notice termination provision. And it is not a mutual alliance at all. Americans pay to protect the others; the others don't pay to protect Americans. It's a very cheap insurance policy for Europe, but at a huge cost to us that we can no longer afford.)

The other source of savings would be to trade off high-cost but marginally useful offensive weapons in order to purchase vitally needed defensive systems. The MX missile is now recognized as a turkey even by Sen. Barry Goldwater and the Wall Street Journal. Far better to simply protect our fields of (still serviceable but aging) Minuteman missiles with ABMs and get on with the task of developing a small, mobile, single-warhead successor missile. Likewise, we should dump either the B-1 or the Stealth bomber. A low-vulnerability cruise-missile carrier makes sense, but not two very costly programs of this sort.

Rethinking defense priorities in this manner would not merely ease the present budget crunch. It would also lead to a safer world. An independent, nuclear-armed European NATO would confront the Soviets with a far stronger restraining force than the present, no-longer-credible US nuclear umbrella over Europe. And with the beginnings of a defensive shield in place, Americans could breathe somewhat easier about the threat of nuclear annihilation.