THE PENTAGON STRIKES BACK: The Defense Budget

Monday, April 22, 2002

In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, President Bush promised to spend "whatever it costs to defend our country." That cost, according to Bush's proposed defense budget, would come to $378 billion in 2003, $48 billion more than in 2002 and the largest percent increase in defense spending since the Reagan era. Critics are saying that the proposed 2003 budget perpetuates the Pentagon's most inefficient weapons and spending habits, thereby delaying the true transformation of the military that is needed to protect America in the twenty-first century. Who's right—the Bush administration or its critics?

Recorded on Monday, April 22, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, how spending billions more on defense might actually make us less safe.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.

[Music]

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the defense budget, or how to get the most bang for our buck, literally. In his State of the Union Address this past January, President Bush promised to spend and I quote, "whatever it costs to defend our country." That cost according to the President's proposed budget will be $378 billion in 2003. That's $48 billion more than in 2002, making for the biggest increase in defense spending since the Reagan Administration. Of course the President has his critics. They argue that the proposed budget would only perpetuate Pentagon inefficiency, spending much too much money on the wrong weapon systems and actually delaying the transformation of the military that we need in the Twenty-first Century.

Joining us today, two guests. Cindy Williams is a Senior Fellow in the Security Studies Program at MIT. Thomas Donnelly is with the Project for a New American Century.

Title: Pentagon Fairy Tales

Peter Robinson: The Goldilocks approach to national defense. President Bush's 2003 budget calls for defense spending of 396 billion dollars. That would take spending to a level about eleven percent higher than average Cold War spending but it would still leave defense spending at only about four percent of GDP, a proportion not that much higher than the proportion of GDP we were spending on defense just before Pearl Harbor. Is George W. Bush's defense budget too big, too little or just right? Cindy?

Cindy Williams: I think it's too big.

Peter Robinson: Tom?

Thomas Donnelly: Porridge too cold. Not enough.

Peter Robinson: Not enough?

Thomas Donnelly: Not enough.

Peter Robinson: Oh, this warms the cockles of the television host's heart when we have a nice, clear disagreement from the get-go. Even without President Bush's increase, the American military budget is six times, you who think we don't spend enough, six times larger than that of Russia, the second biggest spender and more than the military budgets of the other G7 countries combined. Russia, China and the seven so-called rogue states, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, Syria and Libya, have a combined military budget of about 117 billion, which is less than one-third of ours. Tom Donnelly, why do we need to spend six times as much as Russia, three times as much as Russia, China and all the rogue states?

Thomas Donnelly: Well all those figures are actually good things. I mean when America spends money on defense, it's a much different world than when Russia or China spend money on military systems. And what most of those figures tell you is how large the American economy is not how big the American military is. And really the most important point though is what do we need and can we afford it? United States has uniquely global responsibilities and interests that these other countries don't have and it's a good thing that they don't have and that they don't have the armed capabilities to influence global events the way we do.

Peter Robinson: You want us to…

[Talking at same time]

Thomas Donnelly: I don't care precisely what we spend on defense. I do care that the United States continues to exercise a predominant military power around the world and that I--and I know that our economy is large enough as you said earlier, to afford this and more. Four percent of every dollar we make is by historical standards a pretty low--and to have global influence…

Peter Robinson: It got up to thirty-six percent during the Second World War.

Thomas Donnelly: Right. For it to have--to be a hyperpower, the sole superpower on four cents out of the dollar is an incredibly efficient return on investment I would say.

Peter Robinson: You like us as a hyperpower?

Cindy Williams: I like us as a superpower but I have to say, although I agree with Tom that the exact multiple of Russian spending or the exact multiple of Chinese spending is not the main point. And the U.S. has as a superpower a lot more global responsibilities with its military than those militaries have. And so I agree that the spending needs to be substantially higher than their spending. My biggest concern is that we're wasting enormous amounts of money today on Cold War systems and Cold War forces because we've failed to reshape the military in any substantial way even as we downsized it.

Peter Robinson: Reshaping the military, isn't that just what George Bush promised back when he was a candidate?

Title: The Pentagon Strikes Back

Peter Robinson: 1999, candidate Bush gives a speech at the Citadel in which he promises to transform our military. He vows to make use of "a revolution in the technology of war" and to "skip a generation" of weapons so that he begins the immediate development and deployment of weapons that make you--the big words here are mobility, stealth, precision. George Bush as President, I quote Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America's future, "The Pentagon budget for 2003 includes every major weapons program that was in the pipeline when Bush came into office. This includes weapons designed to attack Soviet forces that are no more. It even includes the V22 tilt rotor plane that Bush's father tried to kill over a decade ago." Some reform, some skipping of generations.

Thomas Donnelly: Well it turns out that things are a little bit more complex than candidate Bush told us. And, in fact, we've been in a very large and growing war that candidate Bush, in fact very few Americans, anticipated. And a lot of the "Cold War forces" are doing a pretty stellar job in prosecuting that war.

Peter Robinson: So Bush hasn't lost nerve; he's just smacked into reality?

Thomas Donnelly: I--that's what I would say. Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Cindy, has he smacked into reality or lost an opportunity?

Cindy Williams: I don't think that's true at all. I think that Secretary Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense entered the Pentagon with a plan to make good on President Bush's pre-election promises and ran into fierce resistance from the services.

Peter Robinson: Donald Rumsfeld, "the notion that we could transform while cutting the defense budget was seductive but false."

Cindy Williams: Yeah, I…

Peter Robinson: So Rumsfeld is smacked into reality?

Cindy Williams: I think Rumsfeld was smacked around by the services is what happened. And Rumsfeld even--it's true that before September 11th, Rumsfeld was still hoping to get some reductions in forces but I don't think that it's September 11th that allowed--except for the big additions of money, it's not September 11th that makes you want to keep all of the conventional fore-structure that we had.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Go ahead Tom.

Thomas Donnelly: This is really a key point because the most basic tenet of the transformation approach is that you can substitute capital for labor in military--in warfare. And that's been the general pattern through centuries now. However, we now find ourselves and the Bush Administration tried to get out of nearly every one of the so-called peace-keeping or constabulary missions that have been the common diet of American armed forces for the past ten years. And now we find ourselves with a long-term commitment in Afghanistan on the cusp of perhaps a large-scale operation in Iraq that would also be a regime changing, long-term operation. And whatever these missions turn out to be, whether you're in favor of them or against them, to conduct them in a professional way and in a successful way requires forces of a certain size. And there's no getting around that. And that's the wall that the Pentagon and the Rumsfeld team at the Pentagon has run smack into.

Peter Robinson: Whatever it is that's going on, Rumsfeld now says ah, we can't do that. We're going to spend a bunch of money; we're going to keep the stuff that was in the pipeline. So now instead of a revolution, you get changes on the margins. And I submit to you, that's the way Washington works.

Cindy Williams: I'd be happy even with changes on the margin.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Cindy Williams: I'll give you one example.

Peter Robinson: Yeah, give us a…

Cindy Williams: The F22 air-to-air fighter, this is the Air Force's premier purchasing program. It's the--just started building them a couple years ago and they're into the full swing of production now. The F22 is--it's strictly an air-to-air fighter.

Peter Robinson: Air-to-air means what?

Cindy Williams: This means it wants to have dog fights with--actually with Soviet fighters that never got built because the Soviet Union disappeared. But it's second problem that's an enormous problem for it is that it has what the military likes to call short legs. In other words, it doesn't have a very long range. And so one of the central tenets of the Bush Administration and of Rumsfeld's team now is that increasingly it's going to be difficult for the United States to find bases for anything in the area of…

Peter Robinson: Foreign bases?

Cindy Williams: That's right. In the area of the theatre where we're fighting and that's certainly proved out in Afghanistan. We had an impossible time initially finding a base that was anywhere near the fighting in Afghanistan. As a result we couldn't use initially any of our short-range Air Force fighters. So the F22 is one of these anomalies that's going to be good for…

Peter Robinson: What do they cost per plane if there's a way of estimating that?

Cindy Williams: $126 million the last time I looked.

Peter Robinson: All right sir. $126 million per plane we don't need.

Thomas Donnelly: Cindy does make a point that programs like the F22 are not optimized for the particular missions that they may be asked to perform. However, it's simply not true that we didn't use short-legged fighters because we did use--we used short-legged fighters off of aircraft carriers. The whole point of being a global military power is to have a lot of options.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Peter Robinson: Before we get into the details of reshaping our defense, let's take a look at what we might need to defend ourselves against.

Title: The Sum of All Fears

Peter Robinson: Let me click down what I as a layman think of as possible threats and I'm just dividing them into three groups which is the way they seem to fall. You tell me whether I ought to worry about them and then you tell me whether we either are today equipped to deal with it or you think that they are--that the Pentagon is shaping itself up correctly to address it. Big countries, how worried should we be about Russia and China?

Thomas Donnelly: Not much about Russia but a lot about China.

Cindy Williams: I'm not as worried about China, I think, as Tom is. I think China is a potential future threat but it's not…

Peter Robinson: Potential future threat so are we…

Cindy Williams: But I think that's over the very long-term.

Peter Robinson: So it's nothing--is the military--you wouldn't even worry about it right now.

Thomas Donnelly: No, I disagree. I'm worried about China today…

Peter Robinson: And is Rumsfeld--are they doing what they need to do to think that one through?

Thomas Donnelly: I don't think they're doing enough but it's an improvement over what our government has done in the past, there's just a long way to go so it's a question that we've…

Peter Robinson: Naval forces principally?

Thomas Donnelly: …refused to address. Naval and Air Forces.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Rogue states, Korea, Iraq, the so-called axis of evil, Korea, Iraq, Iran?

Cindy Williams: Korea, if you have a war it's going to be a big ground war but it's not clear that the United States has to participate as the ground force because the South Koreans bring a lot of ground capability to the table. My sense is that we can probably handle that war with fewer forces than we had been anticipating in the past both because North Korea is much weaker and South Korea is much stronger than it was and because our forces are much stronger than they were even at sort of unit by unit than they were at the end of the Cold War. Iraq is a different story. Winning a war if Iraq invaded Kuwait again would not be nearly as difficult as it was during the Gulf War. It wouldn't take as many troops as we sent to the Gulf War but…

Peter Robinson: Because the precision bombing has improved so much chiefly?

Thomas Donnelly: And Iraq's…

Cindy Williams: Yes and because Iraq's been weakened both by the sanctions and by the last war. The problem I have…

Thomas Donnelly: Well I just wanted to--there is one important thing is what do we mean by Iraq? Do we just mean defeating the Iraqi armed forces and toppling the regime or do we include the post-combat reconstruction of Iraq?

Peter Robinson: I don't think--I think we're now stuck with it aren't we?

Thomas Donnelly: Well…

Peter Robinson: We couldn't go in there and take out Saddam Hussein and leave the Kurds fighting with the Shiites and…

Thomas Donnelly: We have yet to make the clear commitment to the stability of post-war Afghanistan so to speak so as a military planner, these are quite different tasks, requiring different kinds of forces and--although the occupation of Iraq so to speak might not require a lot of fire power, it would require a lot of people and it would take a long time.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Cindy…

Cindy Williams: And I completely agree with Tom on that.

Peter Robinson: You were starting to say you have a problem--I didn't want to cut you off.

Thomas Donnelly: I'm sorry.

Cindy Williams: The first is that I think regime change could be harder than we imagine in Iraq because we don't know how the Suni Muslims will behave, assuming that we can change the regime and I believe we can. We don't know after that what level of insurgency will continue and for how many years. And that's where you really start tying up the United States Army.

Peter Robinson: This third group here--big countries, rogue states and terrorism. Now the things that make people--I won't talk about people, I'll talk about me--jittery, another September 11th, somebody coming into a city with a nuclear device, has a dirty bomb in a suitcase anthrax, are these problems that the military's properly configured to deal with? To what extent are they even military problems and to what extent are they intelligence and effectively police problems, FBI problems?

Thomas Donnelly: They're all of the above to be sure but we can't be content with simply trying to put up a prophylactic defense against terrorism. The most effective way to end these attacks is the kind of thing we've done in Afghanistan and that is to attack the problem at its source. The war on terrorism is primarily a war for the greater Middle East.

Peter Robinson: So it is a war? I mean the military component--you're talking about going and taking people out.

Thomas Donnelly: I think that's the best approach.

Peter Robinson: Cindy?

Cindy Williams: I think you have to look at the whole picture of ways that you can deal with terrorism and it starts with kind of an outer ring of non-military international operations that include intelligence but it also includes working with allies in the region, making allies in the region…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Cindy Williams: …by spending some money. Then you look at the military solutions and there are offensive solutions and defensive. My sense is the ones that are going to work the best from a military point of view are the offensive ones. And…

Peter Robinson: So you're as hawkish as Tom on this?

Cindy Williams: I--you know--I'm hawkish…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: You've got to go find them and take them out.

Cindy Williams: I'm hawkish about Afghanistan. I'm much less hawkish about Iraq because I don't see as clear a link I think as Tom does between Iraq…

Peter Robinson: Between the regime and the bad behavior?

Cindy Williams: …and the kinds of terrorism that we're most concerned about.

Peter Robinson: All right…

Peter Robinson: Onto just how our guests would reshape the military.

Title: Force Majeure

Peter Robinson: Basic force structure as it now stands--listen to this and then tell me how you'd change it. About 1.4 million active duty troops, about a quarter of a million of whom are deployed abroad, a Navy of just over three hundred ships, including twelve carrier groups and about fifty attack submarines, an Air Force of about twenty tactical fighter wings, some six thousand nuclear warheads and a missile defense program in embryonic stages of development. Cindy, you're the Secretary of Defense. What's wrong with that force structure as it stands?

Cindy Williams: One thing that I think we could do with very little impact on day-to-day effectiveness is get rid of two of the aircraft carriers. And the thinking there is that if we…

Peter Robinson: But we have trouble--you just said our great problem is finding bases in foreign countries and isn't that the whole idea of aircraft carriers, that they're floating bases?

Cindy Williams: Yes it is but the problem is that today we don't use the aircraft carriers as efficiently as we could. We take one out, we bring one back to port. We could forward base the carriers closer to a place where we thought they were going to be needed. There are also some possibilities of doubling up on the crews on the aircraft carriers to make them more efficient. And I think these are good ideas. A second thing I would really look at is not so much the size but the role of the Army National Guard. You know…

Peter Robinson: How big is that? There I have to admit…

Thomas Donnelly: It's about…

Cindy Williams: Currently it's about three hundred and fifty…

Thomas Donnelly: Three fifty, yeah…

Cindy Williams: …thousand troops. And it's divided up into eight whole divisions that are oriented toward combat in big wars. Why are we still equipping eight divisions for heavy duty combat of the kind that many people say it won't be ready for in time for any war that would really occur. And why don't we instead try to refocus the role of a substantial portion of the guard on operations having to do with homeland security…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: Aircraft carriers, Mark Helprin wrote a piece in the National Review magazine not long ago in which he said, we need a lot more aircraft carriers. Double them. Spend the money.

Thomas Donnelly: I would take more money but that's not the first thing I'd spend it on, that's for sure.

Peter Robinson: You're with her on the aircraft carriers?

Thomas Donnelly: I wouldn't cut the fore-structure per se but if we simply stopped making more, we could still have--these things last fifty years. Thirty years from now, we'd still have a fleet of nine carriers. If we put them in the right place, which is an idea that Cindy suggested, that would help a lot.

Peter Robinson: All right. Okay. So over to you now--you're Rumsfeld for a day.

Thomas Donnelly: Okay. I…

Peter Robinson: What do you want?

Thomas Donnelly: I do want more people. I mean I do think we are undermanned. I want…

Peter Robinson: 1.4 million active duty, what do you want? 1.8, 1--2 million?

Thomas Donnelly: No, 1.6.

Peter Robinson: 1.6. Two hundred thousand would do it?

Thomas Donnelly: Right. We're just talking about fleshing out the current fore-structure.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Thomas Donnelly: Making it more robust. We've been robbing the…

[Talking at same time]

Thomas Donnelly: …fore-structure where we've been robbing Peter to pay Paul increasingly over the past ten years. And if you want a volunteer military that shares the kind of middle class American life that every citizen wants, there's a cost.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so you want 1.6 million…

Thomas Donnelly: In terms of weapons systems, I would like to buy more long-range aircraft.

Peter Robinson: Let me see if I can summarize the reasoning behind Cindy and Tom's reforms.

Title: Serve and Project

Peter Robinson: So you both agree then with the notion that we have to be able to project power from the United States, from our own carrier groups and rely less on foreign bases?

Thomas Donnelly: No, I…

Peter Robinson: You don't?

Thomas Donnelly: No I--look I think we have to be able to project power from the United States but we also must continue to operate in these various regions. You--it's too difficult even for a fabulous military like we have to constantly be projecting power from the heartland. We can fly B2's from Missouri to the dark side of the moon if we want to but that's really a tough thing to do.

Cindy Williams: You know it takes thirty-six hours to fly from Missouri and then drop your weapons in theatre in Afghanistan and return. And the B2's are constructed in a way and need the level of maintenance that we haven't found any good way to maintain them overseas. Now one possibility would be at least to construct a base overseas in friendly territory.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Cindy Williams: Diego Garcia maybe…

Thomas Donnelly: Guam has been suggested.

Peter Robinson: I see. All right.

Cindy Williams: Where we could maintain the B2's…

Peter Robinson: You want manpower, you want…

Cindy Williams: Let me take on the manpower…

Peter Robinson: Okay. I want to get this three hundred ship Navy…

Cindy Williams: …because I think this is a really bad idea.

Uh, adding manpower at this time. And the reason is that one of the reasons the services are hurting so much for manpower--it's the Army that's the most vocal in saying that it can't sustain even fifteen thousand people on peacekeeping operations without wrecking the lives of a hundred thousand people. And that's true but a lot of it has to do with the way that the Army manages its deployments. The Marine Corps sets up a rotation base and makes a lot easier life for everybody because of it. Another problem is that the Army has persisted in keeping a lot of its most important peacekeeping type assets, its civil affairs units, its psychological operations units, its water purification units in the guard rather than in the active forces. And so people who have to deploy, have to do it again and again because it doesn't have enough of them. So I would really like to see the Army solve its management problems first. Then we could see whether it really needed additional troops. But two hundred thousand additional active duty troops, you're talking about a cost increment of twenty billion dollars a year a minimum.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Cindy Williams: That's just to pay them. On top of that, you need some support…

Peter Robinson: 300 ship Navy?

Thomas Donnelly: Number of platforms again is not necessarily the most--the right benchmark to measure it. Look you don't need to have a size to be able to continue to be present all over the world all the time.

Cindy Williams: If you look at the Navy since the end of the Cold War and ask what proportion of its ships are aircraft carriers? What proportion of its ships are surface combatants? What proportion are submarines? Name any class right, it's exactly the same proportion as was during the Cold War. And yet the Navy itself tells us that its job today is completely different from its Blue Water, Deep Ocean job of the Cold War. Now the Navy emphasizes the need to go into the littoral areas, right, and…

Peter Robinson: Get closer to shore…

Cindy Williams: And there's--they have a lot of problems operating in the littoral areas. They have…

Peter Robinson: Last topic. What's the one most important thing about the military that our guests would change?

Title: Cole and Response

Peter Robinson: If you could make one reform what would it be? Cindy?

Cindy Williams: I would get people thinking much more about the so-called asymmetric threats, the kind that...

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: Terrorists?

Cindy Williams: …the terrorist attack, things like the attack on the Cole. And I would have to say that asymmetric threats are not best countered by gigantic forces necessarily. Sometimes an asymmetric threat best needs an asymmetric response.

Peter Robinson: Tom, one reform today? What would it be?

Thomas Donnelly: Move our forward deployed troops closer to the action, in Europe, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, into Central Asia and in the Pacific to the Western Pacific back to Southeast Asia.

Peter Robinson: Last question, it's a question of magnitudes again. During the Second World War military spending reached about thirty-six percent of GDP, incidentally the economy is about nine times bigger now than it was then so each percentage point of GDP is nine times as much spending as it was during the Second World War. Nevertheless as a matter of proportion, thirty-six percent of the output of the nation was devoted to the military during the Second World War. Cold War average about eight percent and as we said at the beginning of the show, if President Bush gets everything he asks for, it'll still be only about four percent of GDP spent on the military. Five years from now, what will that proportion be? Tom?

Thomas Donnelly: What will it be or what should it be?

Peter Robinson: You give me both. You go ahead and give me both.

Thomas Donnelly: It will be about five percent of GDP and that's about what it should be.

Peter Robinson: You're pleased with that. Cindy?

Cindy Williams: I think it'll be somewhere between--in fact, around three percent. I…

Peter Robinson: Lower, as a proportion of GDP?

Cindy Williams: …as a proportion of GDP because even if defense continues to increase at the rate of inflation because the GDP will be increasing much more than inflation, it'll lose share again. And I think that's as it should be. We shouldn't really be measuring based on what share of GDP we're spending. We should be measuring based on how we get a strong defense.

Peter Robinson: It's an astonishing statement about America today that we can become a superpower please--if you have a gigantic military and it's still three, four, five percent of our GDP at most.

Thomas Donnelly: Well the good thing is all of the other industrial powers are our friends and they're wealthy too. So the tasks of running the world, so to speak, are really a lot easier than they were in World War II.

Peter Robinson: Tom, Cindy, thank you very much.

Cindy Williams: Thank you.

Thomas Donnelly: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.