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Experts Letter on Defense Spending to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform

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18 November 2010

Dear Co-chairman Bowles and Co-chairman Simpson:

We are writing to you as experts in national security and defense economics to convey our views on the national security implications of the Commission’s work and especially the need for achieving responsible reductions in military spending. In this regard, we appreciate the initiative you have taken in your 10 November 2010 draft proposal to the Commission. It begins a necessary process of serious reflection, debate, and action.

The vitality of our economy is the cornerstone of our nation’s strength. We share the Commission’s desire to bring our financial house into order. Doing so is not merely a question of economics. Reducing the national debt is also a national security imperative.

To date, the Obama administration has exempted the Defense Department from any budget reductions. This is short-sighted: It makes it more difficult to accomplish the task of restoring our economic strength, which is the underpinning of our military power.

As the rest of the nation labors to reduce its debt burden, the current plan is to boost the base DOD budget by 10 percent in real terms over the next decade. This would come on top of the nearly 52 percent real increase in base military spending since 1998. (When war costs are included the increase has been much greater: 95 percent.)

We appreciate Secretary Gates’ efforts to reform the Pentagon’s business and acquisition practices. However, even if his reforms fulfill their promise, the current plan does not translate them into budgetary savings that contribute to solving our deficit problem. Their explicit aim is to free funds for other uses inside the Pentagon. This is not good enough.

Granting defense a special dispensation puts at risk the entire deficit reduction effort. Defense spending today constitutes over 55 percent of discretionary spending and 23 percent of the federal budget. An exemption for defense not only undermines the broader call for fiscal responsibility, but also makes overall budget restraint much harder as a practical economic and political matter.

We need not put our economic power at risk in this way. Today the United States possesses a wide margin of global military superiority. The defense budget can bear significant reduction without compromising our essential security.

We recognize that larger military adversaries may rise to face us in the future. But the best hedge against this possibility is vigilance and a vibrant economy supporting a military able to adapt to new challenges as they emerge.

We can achieve greater defense economy today in several ways, all of which we urge you to consider seriously. We need to be more realistic in the goals we set for our armed forces and more selective in our choices regarding their use abroad. We should focus our military on core security goals and on those current and emerging threats that most directly affect us.

We also need to be more judicious in our choice of security instruments when dealing with international challenges. Our armed forces are a uniquely expensive asset and for some tasks no other instrument will do. For many challenges, however, the military is not the most cost-effective choice. We can achieve greater efficiency today without diminishing our security by better discriminating between vital, desirable, and unnecessary military missions and capabilities.

There is a variety of specific options that would produce savings, some of which we describe below. The important point, however, is a firm commitment to seek savings through a reassessment of our defense strategy, our global posture, and our means of producing and managing military power.

■ Since the end of the Cold War, we have required our military to prepare for and conduct more types of missions in more places around the world. The Pentagon’s task list now includes not only preventive war, regime change, and nation building, but also vague efforts to “shape the strategic environment” and stem the emergence of threats. It is time to prune some of these missions and restore an emphasis on defense and deterrence.

■ U.S. combat power dramatically exceeds that of any plausible combination of conventional adversaries. To cite just one example, Secretary Gates has observed that the U.S. Navy is today as capable as the next 13 navies combined, most of which are operated by our allies. We can safely save by trimming our current margin of superiority.

■ America’s permanent peacetime military presence abroad is largely a legacy of the Cold War. It can be reduced without undermining the essential security of the United States or its allies.

■ The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed the limits of military power. Avoiding these types of operation globally would allow us to roll back the recent increase in the size of our Army and Marine Corps.

■ The Pentagon’s acquisition process has repeatedly failed, routinely delivering weapons and equipment late, over cost, and less capable than promised. Some of the most expensive systems correspond to threats that are least prominent today and unlikely to regain prominence soon. In these cases, savings can be safely realized by cancelling, delaying, or reducing procurement or by seeking less costly alternatives.

■ Recent efforts to reform Defense Department financial management and acquisition practices must be strengthened. And we must impose budget discipline to trim service redundancies and streamline command, support systems, and infrastructure.

Change along these lines is bound to be controversial. Budget reductions are never easy – no less for defense than in any area of government. However, fiscal realities call on us to strike a new balance between investing in military power and attending to the fundamentals of national strength on which our true power rests. We can achieve safe savings in defense if we are willing to rethink how we produce military power and how, why, and where we put it to use.


  • Gordon Adams, American University and Stimson Center
  • Robert Art, Brandeis University
  • Deborah Avant, UC Irvine
  • Andrew Bacevich, Boston University
  • Richard Betts, Columbia University
  • Linda Bilmes, Kennedy School, Harvard University
  • Steven Clemons, New America Foundation
  • Joshua Cohen, Stanford University and co-editor, Boston Review
  • Carl Conetta, Project on Defense Alternatives
  • Owen R. Cote Jr., Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Michael Desch, University of Notre Dame
  • Matthew Evangelista, Cornell University
  • Benjamin H. Friedman, Cato Institute
  • Lt. Gen. (USA, Ret.) Robert G. Gard, Jr., Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
  • David Gold, Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School
  • William Hartung, Arms and Security Initiative, New America Foundation
  • David Hendrickson, Colorado College
  • Michael Intriligator, UCLA and Milken Institute
  • Robert Jervis, Columbia University
  • Sean Kay, Ohio Wesleyan University
  • Elizabeth Kier, University of Washington
  • Charles Knight, Project on Defense Alternatives
  • Lawrence Korb, Center for American Progress
  • Peter Krogh, Georgetown University
  • Richard Ned Lebow, Dartmouth College
  • Walter LaFeber, Cornell University
  • Col. (USA, Ret.) Douglas Macgregor
  • Scott McConnell, editor-at-large, The American Conservative
  • John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
  • Steven E. Miller, Harvard University and editor-in-chief, International Security
  • Steven Metz, national security analyst and writer
  • Janne Nolan, American Security Project
  • Robert Paarlberg, Wellesley College and Harvard University
  • Paul Pillar, Georgetown University
  • Barry Posen, Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Christopher Preble, Cato Institute
  • Daryl Press, Dartmouth College
  • Jeffrey Record, defense policy analyst and author
  • David Rieff, author
  • Thomas Schelling, University of Maryland
  • Jack Snyder, Columbia University
  • J. Ann Tickner, University of Southern California
  • Robert Tucker, Johns Hopkins University
  • Stephen Van Evera, Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Stephen Walt, Harvard University
  • Kenneth Waltz, Columbia University
  • Cindy Williams, Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Daniel Wirls, UC Santa Cruz
    • This letter reflects the opinions of the individual signatories. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only. The letter is the result of a joint effort by The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy and the Project on Defense Alternatives.

      Big-War Thinking in a Small-War Era: The Rise of the AirSea Battle Concept

      Thomas P.M Barnett. China Security, October 2010.


      In sum, ending China’s free-riding is arguably more important for long-term system-wide stability than continuing to deter China’s military invasion of Taiwan. As globalization’s networks continue to expand at a rapid pace, America’s ability to play sole Leviathan to the system naturally degrades dramatically. That means, while the likelihood of China’s military invasion of Taiwan dissipates with each passing year, the likelihood of America’s “imperial exhaustion” most certainly surpasses it in strategic importance in the near term.

      History will judge US strategists most severely if our choice to maintain “access” to East Asia by triggering a regional arms race precludes our ability to draw China into strategic co-management of this era of pervasively extending globalization—without a doubt America’s greatest strategic achievement. I cannot fault the AirSea Battle Concept as an operational capability designed to keep us in the East Asian balancing “game.” But my fear is that it will—primarily by default and somewhat by “blue” ambition—serve America badly in a strategic sense, absent a proactive political and military engagement effort to balance its negative impact on the most important bilateral relationship of the modern globalization era.

      Editor’s Comment:

      Barnett alerts us to a prospective instance when leading with military capability is likely to be a disservice to strategic interests.

      Future Defense Budget Choices Require Clear Strategic Priorities

      Daniel Goure. Early Warning Blog, Lexington Institute, 03 September 2010.


      The United States cannot afford and the people will not pay for a military that can do battle with uncertainty.

      As a consequence of the need to do battle with uncertainty, emphasis was placed on a military that can cover all bases and do all things. This would not be a wise strategy even if resources were unconstrained. Not all threats are equal. Nor are all interests equally important. Finally, it is possible to make reasoned and reasonable judgments regarding how the future security environment will unfold and define a set of demand signals that would require shifting strategic priorities.

      In the past, when U.S. leaders refused to make choices they allowed the military to shrink symmetrically, by cutting every program or service a little. That approach is self-defeating. It makes no sense to keep a so-called full spectrum military but continually reduce it in size.

      Editor’s Comment:

      Relevant passages from the archives ($3 trillion later):

      Carl Conetta and Charles Knight. “Dueling with Uncertainty”, February 1998.

      There is no escape from uncertainty, but there is relief from uncertainty hysteria. It begins with recognizing that instability has boundaries — just as turbulence in physical systems has discernible onset points and parameters. The turbulence of a river, for instance, corresponds to flow and to the contours of the river’s bed and banks. It occurs in patches and not randomly. The weather also is a chaotic system that resists precise long-range forecasting, but allows useful prediction of broader trends and limits.

      Despite uncertainty, statements of probability matter. They indicate the weight of evidence — or whether there is any evidence at all. The uncertainty hawks would flood our concern with a horde of dangers that pass their permissive test of “non-zero probability.” However, by lowering the threshold of alarm, they establish an impossible standard of defense sufficiency: absolute and certain military security. Given finite resources and competing ends, something less will have to do. Strategic wisdom begins with the setting of priorities — and priorities demand strict attention to what appears likely and what does not.

      The world may be less certain and less stable today than during the Cold War, but it also involves less risk for America. Risk is equal parts probability and utility — chances and stakes. With the end of global superpower contention, America’s stakes in most of the world’s varied conflicts has diminished. So has the magnitude of the military threats to American interests. This permits a sharper distinction between interests and compelling interests, turbulence and relevant turbulence, uncertainties and critical uncertainties. And this distinction will pay dividends whenever the country turns to consider large-scale military endeavors, commitments, and investments.

      Among the visions that guide present policy, one is absent conspicuously: a world in which economic issues have displaced military ones as the central focus of global competitions and concerns. Failing to engage this prospect, the recent defense policy reviews are oblivious to the opportunity cost of military spending. And it is this lapse that gives license to their speculative methods and overweening goals.

      The United States continues to invest more of its national product in defense than does its allies, more than the world average, and much more than its chief economic competitors. By disregarding the requirements and consequences of increased global economic competition, present policy makes an unacknowledged bet about the future: The Soviet Union is gone and no comparable military challenge to the West exists, except as distant possibility. Nonetheless, the American prospect depends as much as ever, if not more, on the specifically military aspects of strength. Of this much, the uncertainty hawks seem certain.

      Task force: Budget fix requires extreme cuts

      Lance M. Bacon. Navy Times, 28 June 2010.


      With an eye on diminishing budgets and rising tensions with Iran and North Korea, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead on June 24 called for continued international partnerships to hone a “just and sustainable international order.” He also continued his call for fiscal restraint, emphasizing that the Navy “cannot afford a tailor-made solution to every need that we have.” But the CNO still is adamant that a 313-ship Navy is needed to maintain maritime security.

      Editor’s Comment:

      Lance M Bacon quotes from a speech by Chief of Naval Operations Roughead at the Maritime Systems and Technology seminar on June 22nd. These quotes are misleading because Roughead is speaking not about reducing the national deficit, but rather about the Navy’s need to watch its spending in the context of growing fiscal pressures on service budgets.

      Roughead remains committed to the goal of a 313 ship battle fleet. He also supports Secretary Gate’s initiative to save $105 billion within DoD accounts over the next five years. Gates’ savings will not contribute a penny to deficit reduction. He plans to plow all savings back into Pentagon programs and it is the Navy’s share of this money that Roughead wants to use to help grow the battle fleet to 313 ships.

      Not only is Gates not offering to contribute to deficit reduction, but he is sticking to his goal of real growth of 1 to 2% a year for in Pentagon budgets. This will increase annual national deficits somewhere in the range of $6 to 12 billion.

      Gates’ position is untenable and will not hold. If the nation is going to meet its deficit reduction commitments the Pentagon will have to contribute its share — which is at least 40% of the $230 billion a year increase in its base (non-war) budget during the last decade. This is the level of cuts the task force has suggested — it is not “extreme”, but rather responsible and realistic.

      In the context of the coming national fiscal restraint, the worst thing the CNO can do is continue pushing to grow the Navy battle fleet to 313 ships. The more success he has in buying now what will prove to be unaffordable new ships, the further the fleet will have to shrink when austere budgeting arrives.

      Far wiser is to start reconfiguring and trimming the fleet now and save procurement dollars for a more realistic set of priorities and a more restrained strategic posture. The task force has put forward one set of priorities for lean times. Let others suggest theirs.

      Carl Conetta speaks on strategic value of getting the nation’s financial house in order

      Capitol Visitors Center, 11 June 2010.

      Debt, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward

      Report of the Sustainable Defense Task Force. 11 June 2010.
      full report:
      executive summary:


      Putting America’s defense establishment on a more sustainable path may require curbing some of our commitments abroad, adopting more realistic military goals, or putting greater emphasis on more cost-effective instruments of power.

      C-SPAN video of the report release briefing hosted by Rep. Barney Frank, U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, 11 June 2010.

      Photos of the report release briefing, U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, 11 June 2010.

      The Deadly Current Toward Nuclear Arms

      James Carroll. Boston Globe, 15 March 2010. Hosted on the CommonDreams website.


      … experts who warn of a coming “cascade of proliferation,” one nation following another into the deadly chasm of nuclear weapons unless present nuclear powers find a way to reverse the current. The main burden is on Russia and the United States, which together possess the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons, but President Obama deliberately made himself central to the challenge when he said in Prague, “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

      Although usually considered apart, the broader US defense posture has turned into a key motivator for other nations to go nuclear. The current Pentagon budget ($5 trillion for 2010-2017) is so far beyond any other country, and the conventional military capacity it buys is so dominant, as to reinforce the nuclear option abroad as the sole protection against potential US attack.

      Defense Budget Resources 2011: Critical Perspectives on the Pentagon Budget and US Military Spending

      Compiled by the Project on Defense Alternatives, 11 March 2010.

      A compilation of critical analysis and opinion from 30 analysts and policy centers.