Record Surplus Must Address the Hollow Military’ Will the Presidential Candidates Seek a Mandate to Do So?

(Washington, D.C.): President Clinton’s announcement on 26 June that the U.S. government’s projected budget surplus would amount to as much as $1.9 trillion dollars over the next ten years has produced the typical response from politicians and interest groups: Give it back to the American people in tax cuts and/or spend more of it on a plethora of domestic programs — from a new prescription drug entitlement program to making social security solvent to improving education.
Meanwhile, Back at the Pentagon

Notably absent from the debate to this point has been what is the federal government’s first responsibility: providing for “the common defense.” Neither Vice President Al Gore nor Texas Governor George Bush has pledged to address the sorts of vast shortfalls in defense investment that have been identified by the Joint Chiefs of Staff — on the order of $30 billion per year over the six- year Future Year Defense Plan (FYDP). Regrettably, neither the Chiefs, the presidential candidates nor practically any other elected official has proposed to correct the well-documented, and far larger, deficiencies laid out by Daniel Gour and James Ranney in their seminal work, Averting the Defense Trainwreck — i.e., roughly $100 billion per year for the next five years.

According to the highly respected Messrs. Gour and Ranney, there is a $376 billion deficit in the funding needed over the next five years to meet the Clinton Pentagon’s own modernization goals as defined in its latest blueprint, the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). In fact, the Gour-Ranney study suggests that the procurement shortfall in Fiscal Year 2000 alone is $71 billion. If the QDR projections prove unduly optimistic, moreover, even that staggering amount would actually be understated.

Yet, according to the Washington Post, “Gore’s plans for a Medicare lockbox, target tax cuts, prescription drugs and other spending would cost $1.75 trillion. Bush’s proposals for a bigger tax cut and health, education, environment and other programs total $1.8 trillion.” In other words, neither of the two parties’ incipient standard-bearers are leaving appreciable room in their budgets for major new infusions of funds for national security activities.

Lip Service?

To be sure, both candidates have, to varying degrees, expressed their support for maintaining a U.S. military “second to none” and promised to improve readiness and the acquisition of modern weapons. Unfortunately, neither has made a concerted effort to educate the American people about the extent of the damage done to the armed forces as a result of the steep decline in Pentagon spending during much of the past decade. According to the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Floyd Spence: “Over the past eight years, the Administration’s cumulative defense budget requests have fallen more than $300 billion short of even covering the costs of inflation relative to the Fiscal Year 1993 defense spending levels it inherited.”

By failing to address with the American people the strategic and policy implications of these yawning mismatches the public is denied the opportunity to understand them, let alone to hire someone who will take corrective action. This merely exacerbates the problem arising from the candidates’ reluctance to date to promote a real national debate about the dynamic and increasingly volatile international environment that seems likely to follow the “Post-Cold War world” — and that could make the deteriorated state of the U.S. military a major liability for the country.

Don’t Just Throw Money at the Problem

The grievous difficulties afflicting the American armed forces today are, of course, not limited to the effects of denying them the requisite funding over many years. Neither will they be corrected simply by adding funds.

Robust presidential leadership will be required to correct the cumulative effects of eight years of an administration that has pursued a “counter-culture”-style agenda that has weakened the power and morale of the Nation’s military. Elements of this agenda include: an abiding hostility towards security — particularly, information, personnel and physical security — whose bitter fruits have become increasingly evident in a succession of scandals across the government; social experimentation pursued in the name of opening up the combat arms to women and homosexuals without regard for the deleterious effect on either good order and discipline or the readiness of the armed services to fight the country’s wars; and the subordination of U.S. military capabilities and freedom of action to multinational institutions like the UN.

There’s No Getting Around the Need for Significant Increases in Defense Spending

That said, even if the next President understands the need for and is prepared to effect corrective action in these areas, he will still have to address the the procurement “gap” — and similar, although less acute, shortfalls in the research and development, operations and maintenance and personnel pay accounts.

Happily, these would essentially disappear if the United States were willing for the foreseeable future to allocate 4% of its Gross Domestic Product to defense, rather than today’s less than 3%. Such a proportion of GDP is well below the more than 5-6.7% that President Reagan dedicated during the 1980s to rebuilding our military after its last hollowing-out. And this percentage is a small fraction of the allocations the Nation made to national security earlier on, notably during John F. Kennedy’s administration.

It is unlikely that any President could accomplish such an allocation of resources — particularly in an era still widely perceived to be one of durable peace as well a sustained prosperity — without engaging in a vigorous dialogue with the American people and seeking their mandate for a new defense build-up. It seems unlikely that even with his electoral landslide Ronald Reagan would have been able to accomplish his vital defense modernization program, whose legacy the U.S. military and successive Presidents have continued to draw upon to this day, without making that initiative a centerpiece of his 1980 election campaign.

To achieve such a mandate, the presidential candidates will have to exhibit vision and will. They will have to address the actual state of the world and the reality that, in important ways, the American people are less safe today than they were eight years ago. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile delivery systems is but one example of a problem that has grown much more acute since 1993, despite President Clinton’s repeated effort (until very recently) to deny that the United States was at risk of missile attack.

The presidential candidates are also going to have to eschew the temptation to play fast and loose with the options for rebuilding the sort of U.S. military that will be required down the road. Glib promises of “doing things smarter” and fielding lighter, more mobile and yet more lethal forces cannot change the fact that the maintenance of global presence and power projection capabilities will, for quite some time to come, require the sorts of forces we have today — and will, therefore, require that their obsolescing equipment be modernized as quickly as possible with available technologies. We are simply unable to wait in every case for the generation-after-next technologies that may emerge from the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).

The Bottom Line

Fortunately, the American people have sufficient common sense to be willing to pay the price for a robust defense posture that is at least comparable to that available at the time of Desert Storm. This is especially true when it can be done with surplus government revenues, rather than deficit spending. All they require to make such a sacrifice is to be told coherently, consistently and credibly that the world in which we now live is not one free of missile and other dangerous threats and is one in which vital American interests and even our people are at risk.

Most especially, they require the truth from their elected leaders and above all from their military commanders the truth. To their credit, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have started to tell it; it’s time for those who would be their Commander-in-Chief to do so as well.

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