Three bogus arguments are commonly made for big military cuts.
First, we can’t afford today’s military. Not so. How much we spend is a political decision. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the country was much poorer, 40 percent to 50 percent of the federal budget routinely went to defense, representing 8 percent to 10 percent of our national income. By 2010, a wealthier America devoted only 20 percent of federal spending and 4.8 percent of national income to the military. Social spending replaced military spending; but that shift has gone too far.
Second, we spend so much more than anyone else that cutbacks won’t make us vulnerable. In 2009, U.S. defense spending was six times China’s and 13 times Russia’s, according to estimates from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The trouble with these numbers is that they don’t truly adjust for differences in income levels. U.S. salary and procurement costs are orders of magnitude higher than China’s, for example. But China’s military manpower is about 50 percent greater than ours, and it has a fighter fleet four-fifths as large. This doesn’t mean that China’s military technology yet equals ours, but differences in reported spending are wildly misleading.
Third, the Pentagon has so much inefficiency and waste that sizable cuts won’t jeopardize our fighting capability. Of course, there’s waste and inefficiency. These are being targeted in the $450 billion of additional cuts over 10 years — beyond savings from Iraq and Afghanistan — that President Obama and Congress agreed to this year. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had already cut major programs, including the F-22 stealth fighter, that he judged unneeded. Savings can be had from overhauling Tricare, the generous health insurance for service members and retirees. But like most bureaucratic organizations, the Pentagon will always have some waste. It’s a myth that it all can be surgically removed without weakening the military.