Defense spending isn’t the place to skimp

Rebeccah Heinrichs Foreign Policy Analyst
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In a private meeting before the debt ceiling vote, several Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee urged House Speaker John Boehner to appoint a hawk to the super committee charged with reducing the deficit. His mission: defend the defense budget.

Speaker Boehner did not do as they asked. Tea Party Republicans want to cut everything — including defense — and their calls have been too loud and insistent to ignore.

The Pentagon is already bracing to cut $350 billion over the next decade as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned earlier this month that going beyond these cuts “would damage our national defense.”

Nevertheless, if the super committee fails to identify $1.5 trillion in cuts from the overall federal budget by Thanksgiving, the deal mandates that the defense budget will automatically be reduced by $850 billion. In other words: Congress is willing to “damage our national defense” if it means saving the country some money.

But military spending is not and never has been the bulk of our budget deficit. According to the Congressional Research Service, “by 2009, mandatory spending had grown to 60% of total outlays, with Social Security, Medicare, and the federal share of Medicaid alone comprising almost 41% of all federal spending.”

Earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office’s Budget and Economic Outlook showed that at $2 trillion, mandatory spending (excluding TARP) in fiscal year 2010 was almost three times more than defense spending, which totaled $690 billion, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In May, in his last major speech as secretary of defense, Robert Gates reminded his audience that “defense expenditures are currently a lower share of GDP than most of the last half century and a much lower percentage than during previous major wars.”

While defense spending remains a relatively small part of the federal budget, America’s enemies continue to give us reasons to improve our military.

General Patrick O’Reilly, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, noted earlier this month that more countries are acquiring the ability to develop and produce their own missiles. This is why it is particularly troubling that missile defense is an area many in Congress are chomping at the bit to cut.

The missile defense system we have in place is impressive especially considering the U.S. has only been unconstrained by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty since 2002. This is the only system that protects the U.S. from a range of possible Iranian and North Korean missile attacks. And we can do much more. We could develop and deploy capabilities to protect all American cities as well as our forces abroad and our allies from the threat of missile attacks. All we lack is the will.

Nor is the threat limited to rogue states. As part of the Chinese military build-up, Beijing is developing an aircraft carrier and anti-ship missiles to project power and deny access to international waters it claims as its own. Meanwhile Congress is targeting the U.S. Navy for budget cuts that will make the often-cited goal of a 313-ship fleet even more unlikely.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, waterborne goods contribute over $742 billion to the U.S. economy and employ 13 million workers. If the American people think the economy is bad now, imagine what could happen without an adequate navy.

Cyberspace is also becoming an increasingly critical battlefield. House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers told an audience earlier this month what many know but few say in public: China and Russia are conducting sustained campaigns to steal U.S. military and commercial secrets through cyber warfare.

Dmitri Alperovitch of the online security company McAfee remarked of recent cyber attacks that “What is happening to all this data … is still largely an open question. However, if even a fraction of it is used to build better competing products or beat a competitor at a key negotiation, the loss represents a massive economic threat.”

Americans frustrated with the state of the economy should encourage their elected officials to cut programs most responsible for the financial fix.

Defense spending keeps us safe and provides the conditions necessary for a healthy economy. It is not the place to skimp.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.