Our Indefensible National Security Budget
By DAVID C. UNGER
If you want a green light for government spending in America, just say the word defense.
It’s next to impossible to wrestle free enough federal money for education, health care, or rebuilding New Orleans. But when the Air Force says it needs tens of billions of dollars for newer model fighters or the Navy wants to upgrade destroyers - in an era when America’s most dangerous enemies have no ships or planes of their own - Congressional appropriators and members of the taxpaying public don’t even bother asking hard questions.
There is nothing wrong with a rich country like United States spending very large sums of money to make itself as secure as possible. But despite the roughly half a trillion dollars we now lavish on the military every year, Americans are not as protected as they ought to be - and as they easily could be at significantly lower cost.
The shocking truth is that year after year the Pentagon spends well over half of its investment budget on high cost, low value weapons systems that are designed to fight non-existent enemy superpowers — systems that have no immediate connection to the terrorists, jihadists, and other real foes confronting the nation.
The money lavished on these low-value systems could be used to shore up acute vulnerabilities like our sea ports, aviation system and highly explosive and toxic chemical plants, all of which are scandalously shortchanged and under-protected.
This squandered money could also be used to help our frontline soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are paying a high price for misdirected Pentagon spending. We could be paying for enough new back-up Army and Marine forces to shorten combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, put a stop to the ominous smirking in Iran and North Korea about overstretched American ground forces.
Diverting at least some of the mega-billions now locked up for decades to come in low-priority weapons production lines could also assure that all troops in today’s combat theaters are equipped with protective armor tough enough to withstand the increasingly sophisticated and lethal explosives they face on a daily basis.
As the mid-term elections approach, candidates are lining up to prove that they are the toughest on terrorism, but that isn’t the real issue. This is a question of competence, something we need a lot more of right now in our national security planning.
Wouldn’t it be great if somebody based a national candidacy on the real national security crisis facing America and demanded a radical reallocation of federal security spending toward the homeland and battlefield defenses we so desperately need?
I. A Unified View of Defense
America’s first war of the 21st century began not in Afghanistan or Iraq but here on American soil. Washington’s ideas about defense spending have simply not caught up with this new reality.
We still spend about eight times as much preparing for old-fashioned wars abroad as we do to protect Americans going about their lives here at home. And Pentagon mismanagement has let conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq cannibalize the forces and equipment of the National Guard, which ought to be our frontline homeland security force.
A meaningful way of commemorating the recent fifth anniversary of 9/11 would have been to finally recognize the need to integrate defense and homeland security planning and spending.
We spend nearly $500 billion a year on mainly overseas military defense (not counting Iraq and Afghanistan, which are paid for by supplemental appropriations). We spend roughly $55 billion more on homeland security. This is one pot of money with a single purpose, keeping the nation safe, and we should be thinking about it that way.
If we did, the public would see that we have the balance off, throwing money at remote military contingencies while leaving our ports, chemical plants and transportation networks needlessly vulnerable to attack.
The allocation of money within each of these two budgets is also grossly distorted.
Homeland security dollars are doled out by geographic and population formulas rather than actual vulnerabilities, so rural states that have little risk get as much or more money per capita in some programs as places like New York and Washington, D.C.
Pentagon dollars are divided between the services according to traditional formulas that build in waste and redundancy and fail to take account of changing military realities. The burdens of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, have fallen disproportionately on the Army and the Marines. But long-term spending and investment plans have not been redirected accordingly.
II. Why The Pentagon Approaches Budgets Irrationally
In a rational world, top Pentagon officials would sit down each year to examine the current national security situation, and propose allocations accordingly. Unfortunately, the military budgeting process in Washington long ago got disconnected from timely assessments of America’s actual security needs.
The four military services jealously protect their traditional shares of the overall spending and investment budget, even when, as now, there are real wars going on whose requirements do not correspond to that traditional allocation.
One result is that the Navy and Air Force remain more than amply staffed while the Army and Marines are so strained for ground troops that their fighting readiness, career retention rates and recruitment programs have fallen into chronic crisis.
Another is that billions of dollars are wasted annually on duplicated missions and weapons systems so that the Army and Navy can have their own air forces. Worst of all, the huge streams of money allocated to each service for long term investments in future weapons are almost impossible to shift around between services or redirect toward non-weapons needs, like more ground troops.
III. Why Congress Isn’t Much Better
Congress has its own issues, starting with the unhealthy symbiotic relationship between major defense contractors, politicians and military procurement officials.
Almost every branch of federal defense and homeland security spending provide opportunities for private companies to make guaranteed profits, immune from the vagaries of the market. The really big money — even with the cold war now a distant memory — still lies in long-term deals for equipping the Air Force and Navy with ever newer models of technology laden aircraft, surface ships, and submarines suitable for superpower conflict.
The price tags are astronomical: the F-22A and F-35 jet fighters, at a combined cost next year of roughly $8.1 billion. The DDG 1000 destroyer, at $3.4 billion. The Virginia-class attack submarine, at $2.6 billion.
None of these planes, ships or submarines are of any obvious use against Qaeda terrorists, insurgents and sectarian militias in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Their only plausible use is against a rival superpower like the old Soviet Union. But that superpower rivalry ended a decade and a half ago.
Now they are mainly marketed on the theory that one day we may want to fight a war with China — a country with no visible territorial ambitions, underdeveloped military forces and with which the United States now has no obvious military conflicts.
Congress should be looking at these programs with a critical eye, but Congress is itself compromised. Military contractors are enormous contributors to political campaigns, and that gives their lobbyists tremendous clout on Capitol Hill.
It makes more sense to redirect a great deal of this spending to adequately arming and reinforcing our troops. But the men and women serving overseas cannot compete with the big defense contractors when it comes to making their case to Congress.
IV. The Pentagon Money Machine
It isn’t only about campaign contributions — it’s also about jobs. Defense contractors are large employers in the districts of many influential members of Congress, and they are not shy about reminding congressmen that cutting back on defense contracts will mean job losses — and political repercussions — back home.
It’s time to stop using the Pentagon as a corporate welfare program and employment agency and put America’s national security dollars where they belong - providing more relief and support for our frontline ground troops and better security for our endangered homeland.
With Republican majorities running the Senate and House, Congressional oversight of military budgets has been even laxer than usual. But both parties have long had a bad habit of awarding relevant committee seats to Senators and Representatives more interested in keeping weapons production lines in their district humming than in demanding serious reform.
That kind of mutual back-scratching, though reprehensible, is perfectly legal. But sometimes the collusion reaches criminal proportions. Last year, Representative Randy Cunningham, a Republican who served on the House Intelligence Committee pleaded guilty to accepting millions of dollars of bribes from military companies to help them win Pentagon contracts.
V. Plugging The Holes In Homeland Security
Homeland Security spending is not immune from the same kind of politically driven distortion of priorities. But since this is a relatively new area of federal spending, with fewer long-time entrenched interests, the dollar amounts involved are significantly smaller.
And that too is a problem. Even if Homeland Security dollars were more rationally allocated, there would not be enough to meet some obvious and urgent national needs - like adequately scrutinizing the cargo coming into American ports, reducing the risk of catastrophic terrorism or accidents at chemical plants that could kill or sicken hundreds of thousands of Americans, or accelerating the development of the next generation of baggage and cargo screening devices to substantially reduce the risk of airborne terrorism.
The Bush administration prefers to leave the financing and implementation of these essential protections to voluntary corporate initiatives. Protecting the basic security of Americans at home is too important to leave to voluntarism. The unsatisfactory record of the past five years demonstrates clearly that only federal requirements and federal dollars will get the job done in an acceptable time frame.
Seaports and Shipping Containers Probably the single most dangerous hole in the nation’s security is our ports, where inspection of incoming cargo containers remains spotty. Most experts agree that the most likely way a nuclear bomb or other weapon of mass destruction would be smuggled into the United States is by sea. Current cargo scanning technology could completely miss a nuclear bomb shielded by lead casing or a similarly packaged dirty radiological bomb. Yet only 5 percent of the more than 10 million cargo containers annually entering the United States are more thoroughly inspected by hand.
That is an alarming and unnecessary risk, as Congress is finally beginning to recognize. All American-bound cargo containers should be adequately inspected for nuclear materials before arriving at American ports. Senator Charles Schumer of New York believes this could be done(PDF) for less than $150 million a year. Other needed improvements include more reliable identification systems for port workers and truck drivers and tamper proof seals for inspected cargo containers. The total bill would come to something less than $3 billion a year.
Securing Nuclear Materials Abroad There is still a shocking amount of potential nuclear bomb material lying around poorly guarded locations, particularly in the former Soviet Union. The most cost effective way to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists is to complete the process of securing these materials worldwide.
Under the first President Bush, a program was put in place to start this process, and it has been making steady but painfully slow progress ever since. But despite numerous expert recommendations, adequate money and political will have been lacking under the current Bush administration. . At current rates, securing the remaining loose nuclear material would take several more years at least. . That is a very foolish risk to run, when stronger leadership and an additional $2 billion a year could cut that interval down substantially.
Biological and Chemical Security Non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction include deadly biological and chemical toxins, like anthrax and nerve gas. Homeland security efforts in both areas have been badly lagging.
Project Bioshield, which was supposed to have created national stockpiles of effective drugs, vaccines and antidotes, hasn’t, mainly due to understaffing and poor management. The biggest domestic chemical threat, large and poorly secured chemical plants located near large urban centers, remains inadequately addressed. If one of these plants was attacked by terrorists, a realistic possibility, plumes of lethal gases would stream over nearby cities, sickening millions of people. Deadly chemicals carried by rail, which often move through densely populated areas, is another major area of vulnerability.
The slow progress in this area has been due to the extreme reluctance of the Bush administration to impose legal requirements on chemical and rail transport companies, relying instead on an uneven patchwork of voluntary actions.
Air and Ground Transportation Networks : The most notable homeland security gains have involved airline passengers. This is scarcely surprising, since the 9/11 terrorists used hijacked passenger jets as their deadly weapons. Yet even in this area, surprising gaps remain, as the recent alarms over explosive liquids in carry-on baggage have shown.
We may be making a mistake, though, in concentrating too much on the method the terrorists used the last time, rather than areas of even greater vulnerability. About one-fourth of all commercial air cargo travels in the holds of passenger jets. A bomb in a package carried on a commercial jet could cause hundreds of fatalities. Currently, less than 15 percent of the commercial cargo carried on passenger jets is screened by Transportation Security Administration inspectors.
Ground transportation is even more vulnerable. Terrorists demonstrated in Madrid and London that they can strike surface transportation to deadly effect. Amtrak, commuter rail lines and subway and bus systems in America are poorly protected, with the federal government doing far too little to coordinate and supplement local law enforcement and intelligence efforts. The T.S.A. has only 100 inspectors assigned to surface transit, compared to the 43,000 it has screening airline passengers and baggage.
VI. A Sensible Allocation
Politicians like to talk about their commitment to fighting terrorism. But an effective war on terrorism depends on making shrewd spending decisions. We are falling woefully short in this area, but it is not too late to shape up.
The most obvious first step — and one Congress and the White House have utterly failed on — is allocating money based on risk. Nobody knows for sure where the next terrorist attack on American soil will take place, but that cannot justify the Homeland Security Department’s dartboard-plus pork approach to doling out urban security grants.
There is every reason to believe an attack is much more likely — because of past patterns, and potential impact — in New York or Washington than in Wyoming. It is inexcusable that the Department of Homeland Security and Congress’s funding formulas do not recognize this.
There are other obvious steps, and there are some thoughtful voices in Washington that have been pointing them out.
The bipartisan 9/11 commission has identified major shortfalls in Homeland Security preparedness and described what still needs to be done.
Congressional Democrats have been rallying support behind bills that would significantly strengthen port, container and chemical plant security. Sen. Joseph Biden this month proposed creating a homeland security trust fund of $53 billion over the next five years that would be used to implement the 9/11 commission’s homeland security recommendations. (It would be paid for by rolling back some tax cuts for those making more than $1 million a year.)
Last spring, two Washington research groups, the Center for Defense Information and Foreign Policy in Focus, went even further by publishing what they called a unified national security budget(PDF)
Their budget proposes a $24 billion increase in homeland security spending and shows how it easily could be paid for by cutting back unneeded or over-funded weapons systems like the F 22A fighter, the DDG 1000 Destroyer and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and trimming the size of the active duty Air Force and Navy.
Overall, the two groups found that more than $60 billion that could be safely shifted out of the next year’s military budget. That would leave more than $25 billion to spare, after the homeland security increases, which they would apply to such activities as nation-building, peacekeeping, and alternative energy which also make a vital contribution to America’s national security.
There’s plenty of room for debate about exactly which weapons to cut and by how much. For example, a good case can be made for protecting the Joint Strike Fighter, a promising step toward producing a single aircraft type that both the Air Force and Navy can use.
There’s also room to debate how the savings should be spent. But it is clear that the current spending priorities are deeply flawed, and are not making us as safe as we should be.
VII. How To Make It Happen
This kind of a rational reallocation of national security spending is not just a realistic goal. It is an urgent requirement. But it isn’t going to be easy to achieve.
The biggest obstacle is the military-industrial-political complex, which has a strong interest in maintaining the status quo. There is a pressing need for real lobbying reform to break this alliance’s ability to defend mistaken budgetary priorities.
That reform could open the way to better Congressional oversight - starting with more tough-minded appointees to relevant committees. Senators like John McCain of Arizona and Carl Levin of Michigan, along with Representatives like Ike Skelton of Missouri and John Spratt of South Carolina have shown what tough-minded Congressional oversight can look like. Committees in which such legislators formed a majority could work wonders.
More rational national security spending will also require a very different kind of defense secretary. Instead of responding to 9/11 with a reconceived national security budget, Donald Rumsfeld pressed ahead with a preconceived program of “defense transformation” that in practice boiled down to a disastrous campaign to try and force the army to do more with fewer ground troops and shortchanged post-war peacekeeping and nation-building operations.
From time to time, Mr. Rumsfeld did speak about the importance of freeing up billions of dollars flowing into costly and obsolete cold war weapons systems. But when it came time to draw up the Pentagon’s annual budget requests when actual budgets, he rarely fought to do so.
VIII. Starting Right Now
There is going to be a lot of talk between now and the November mid-term elections about keeping the nation safe. Unfortunately, much of it will be delivered in sound bites and 30-second TV ads.
Voters should demand that candidates go beyond the platitudes and talk about the real issues, like port security and a better prepared army, and about how they intended to pay for it.
Let’s have a real debate. And then let’s have real security.
Readers Respond to ‘Our Indefensible National Security Budget’
Aneil Mishra, Okemos, Mich.: David Unger's editorial is one of most important and cogent pieces I have read in years. It should be required reading for all of our national political candidates and national news broadcasters and writers. It is criminal how much money is being spent on too many defense appropriations that will do nothing to enhance our national security.
Mike Shor, Washington: Thank you for exposing the illogical and inefficient allocations within the defense budget. Your essay was a much needed start on focusing our defense spending on our defense priorities. I hope, however, that you will move on to examining our skewed spending on defense activities at the expense of areas that will build a better and more secure future for the country such as education and health care. With 54 percent of the country's budget being spent on defense, more than the total of the next 25 countries combined, we are left with precious little to maintain or improve the lives we purport to be defending.
Philip Rutter, Canton, Minn.: Until we have real limits on the profits available to [the makers of] high-tech secret weapons systems, this will continue. Why do our troops have trouble getting body and vehicle armor? Because those tools are not secret the profit level is controlled and it's not nearly as much as they can make building our New Maginot Line In Space, the highly classified and utterly useless, not to mention non-functioning missile defense, which will prevent Korea from nuking Anchorage. Stealing public money this way should be classified as treason.
Susanna Shapiro, Washington: This is a great point and a thoroughly documented article. The need for active pressure to change this antiquated, inappropriate spending pattern is clear. Now the real question: would anyone be interested in joining or forming a campaign to begin to change these habits? Another point that is arguably outside the scope of the article, but that I'd also like to raise is that no spending on security, even if it was appropriately reallocated as Mr. Unger suggests, makes up for our disastrous foreign policy and worsening immigration policy. These three areas are related and fundamentally linked with our increasing global vulnerability.
Charles Pellerin, Boulder, Colo.: During a recent trip to Switzerland, perhaps the most interesting insight was stimulated by a visit to a Swiss fortress, Fortress Furigen, inside a mountain just outside Lucerne built in 1940 when Hitler surrounded Switzerland. While America concentrates on offense with our troops and aircraft carriers trying to run the rest of the world, the Swiss concentrate on defense. This is why they have been able to remain neutral through two world wars without attack. In Switzerland, everyone joins the army for a year, then shorter service after. All homes have bomb shelters and weapons with people trained how to use them … Planes are stored in mountain caves near highways that quickly convert to airfields. All bridges and highways on major routes are built with explosives already in place to prevent a ground invasion. There is a lot of immigrant labor … trust me, nobody is there illegally. There is no sense of fear, no searches anywhere, no vehicle barriers, etc. It felt so comfortable like America used to be. The dialogue we should be having here is not about how many troops in Iraq, but whether a defense department or offense department better serves our national interest. Switzerland is clean, beautiful, hydroelectric, peaceful and with great infrastructure including education, transportation and lack of poverty. Perhaps we can learn something?
Barbara Matheson, Baltimore: Why be apologetic to the present administration with respect to the defense budget. It is wrong to spend large sums of money on defense. It may be alright to spend adequate, sufficient sums of money on defense. We should never forget the power of the military-industrial-gun complex and its influence on world and national life.
Lawrence Light, Mission Viejo, Calif: I agree with your article. The current administration has siphoned off the monies required to repair our infrastructure by spending on the Iraq war, agreeing to vast amounts of defense spending, creating an environment in which oil prices can rise as high as the oil companies would like, creating tax breaks for a very small segment of the population that must be made up by the rest if any money is to be raised. Sure, your piece raises a good point but I can see no way that the pigs who have been so accustomed to using the government trough will ever give up such a lucrative conduit for this kind of money. The amount of pork doled out in the name of Homeland Security is stupendous. Perhaps when the oceans rise six to twelve inches or a military draft is instituted or oil hits $200 a barrel will any action be taken and, by then, it may be too late. The only solution, which you do not state, is for the Democrats to take over again as a majority. I have no doubt, now that the public trough is open, that the Democrats will also begin to feed from it in prodigious amounts but in the immediate time frame, the only way to stop this feeding frenzy is to elect Democrats. Get your friends to elect them, work to elect them. Otherwise all of your articles, no matter how carefully documented and thought out, will be for naught.
Kenneth Rasmussen, Vienna, Austria: May this article kick off a nation-wide debate. The national security issues involved are coupled with questions about the whole direction that our government and economy should take. In a way, it is a call for a new American Revolution, one that would free us of the unhealthy tangle of business interests and government action that so bedevils common sense. … If we are a government of business, then the people are the bookkeepers. Here in Austria, the people are wondering why the government should spend millions on new fighter airplanes when there is simply no danger whatsoever of an air attack from anybody. Why should billions more than most countries spend on health care be spent on a new line of airplanes that probably consume more petroleum just test flying than you and I and Topeka, Kans., combined could consume in a life time?
Colter Rule, New York: If this country can't turn this morass called the military-industrial complex out to pasture, we will bury ourselves. No need for Al Qaeda to do the work. This country is sinking into a pit of self-created quicksand. Why, when we profess to want to spread it, does Democracy not work at home? I know: follow the money.! Maybe someday, before our education system dumbs us all down into the Stone Age, we will wake up and have some revolutionary change. Eisenhower warned us long ago. ...
Mike Byrne, Fort Collins, Colo.: Ironically, the ludicrous amount of money devoured by the Department of Defense has made us less secure. Iraq was in part a project of military-industrial complex think a quick victory made possible by wiz-bang technology leading to reshaping the Middle East. Also, many developed countries get a free ride on the military-industrial complex gravy train. Germany, France, and the U.K. get to spend less on defense and more on infrastructure, education, and health care. Who would pass on that deal? …Sadly, there are no Dwight Eisenhowers around. The standard U.S. politician is an enabler to the country's fear. A more virtuous country would spend less but require more from its citizens, like universal service. Is it any wonder the rest of the world views us as militarily strong, morally weak?
Dublin Popov, Denver, Colo.: Thank you for your excellent analysis of the gaps and needs in the country's national security policies. When the facts that you laid out are so indisputable and yet policymakers fail to take effective action, I'm left wondering what kind of impetus is required for American citizens to wake up and demand that their elected representatives to put an end to campaign contributions and lobbying by the industrial-military complex and other corporate entities. This could be a wonderful campaign for organized religion to embrace. Some of the billions saved from cutting out wasted dollars from obsolete/irrelevant weapons systems could then be invested in building up human security, i.e., eradicating disease, protecting the environment, and providing education and health care and eliminating poverty here and abroad, along with a wiser allocation of dollars for national security as outlined by Mr. Unger.