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Reagan’s Defense Budget: Arms for the Poor

The president’s defense buildups makes no sense, costs too much and is tied to a cold-war foreign policy

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When Congress stages its great debate on cutting the defense budget, it will generate a blizzard of confusing headlines and symbolic gestures. Let’s cut $10 billion here or $20 billion there. Let’s cancel the MX missile or send the battleships back into mothballs. Even the hawks want to cut something. Don’t be misled. In the unlikely event that Congress has the courage to eliminate all of the so-called big ticket items — the MX, the B-1 bomber, the nuclear aircraft carriers — it still won’t solve the real problem. That, of course, is not the defense budget itself, but the cold-war foreign policy that generates runaway military commitments around the globe. Until Americans face that, defense budgets will be bloated, endlessly out of control.

This underlying mess simply makes the immediate dollars-and-cents crisis more frustrating. The defense establishment has gotten itself into an epic financial bind that can’t be eliminated by cosmetic reductions. Thanks to the blank-check generosity of the Reagan administration, the Pentagon ordered everything in the candy store. Even with Reagan’s enormous increases, much less with budget reductions, it can’t pay for it all. In the next few years, as dozens of new weapons systems go into production, the bills will come due, and they are guaranteed to bust the budget.

Confronting this reality, a few brave voices from the left and the right are offering an ironic prediction about the Gipper’s massive defense buildup: it will actually leave us weaker a few years hence.

To that, I would add a modest prediction of my own: the American taxpayers are going to be real sore when this dawns on them. When citizens realize they’ve been had, it may compel them to confront some basic issues about national security. Do we really need 543,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines deployed in foreign lands? If the Soviet threat is so scary, how come our allies in Europe and Asia won’t pay their share of the costs? Does it make sense for America to subsidize the defense of our economic competitors — Germany, Japan, Korea and France — when we could be investing those billions toward rebuilding our own battered economy? Is the Pentagon budget protecting or endangering us?

Only a handful of politicians have the guts to ask these questions today, but I expect they will become more frequent in the next few years, as the cautious center of American politics discovers that the country can no longer bankroll its open-ended role of global cop. In the meantime, the forecast of a monstrous financial bind at the Pentagon is not really an argument between hawks and doves. Experts on both sides of defense issues see it coming.

The most devastating critique I’ve seen of Reagan’s arms program was issued recently by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank devoted to the cold war and bigger defense budgets. Unless there is fundamental reform of military strategy and a sober cutback on new weapons systems, Heritage analyst George W.S. Kuhn sees our overall fighting capability getting weaker and weaker: “The increased spending secured by President Reagan should afford significant improvements in force size. It does not. The acquisition account is buying less this year in many programs than former president Jimmy Carter’s 1979 plan had projected: The Reagan budget increases have not changed the unhealthy trends in U.S. defense capabilities…. More spending in the usual manner on the usual kinds of programs would only raise the level at which this internal cancer consumes resources.”

Identical fears are expressed on the dovish side. Representative Les Aspin, a Wisconsin Democrat who was one of the “McNamara whiz kids” at the Pentagon in the Sixties and who is now an astute critic of its foibles, says, “I would predict that in the latter 1980s our forces are going to have the same problems they had in the 1970s.”

To understand why, we have to begin with a dry-eyed look at what the Pentagon buys with $250 billion of our tax dollars — and what it can’t buy with Reagan’s annual increases. The ponderous new weapons that get most of the headlines do not consume most of the defense dollars. The MX, for instance, may eventually gobble up $40 billion to $60 billion, but if it is permanently eliminated this year, the immediate budget saving will be only about $2 billion. The 100 B-1 bombers will cost $20 billion to $40 billion, depending on whose estimate you believe, but that cost is spread over many years in the future. The two mammoth nuclear aircraft carriers will cost $7 billion, and much more later to maintain, but killing them won’t balance accounts now. In the larger scheme of things, these are expensive trinkets. We don’t need them, but eliminating them won’t solve the fiscal crisis. The essential point is that the Reagan buildup is not designed to add significantly to our basic fighting components, the troops and combat units that planners call the “force structure.”

The army has sixteen divisions (which annually cost about $3.7 billion each to maintain), and the marines have three. We won’t be getting any more. The combined services field about forty tactical air wings — fighter planes based on land and at sea — and there’s nothing budgeted to add new ones. But there is the navy’s shipbuilding binge. We have about 530 ships, including 100 or so submarines, and Reagan wants to bring that total to 600, although the number of subs will actually decline slightly as we build bigger ones. And, of course, there’s always the bombers, transport planes and the crews to man about 1700 missiles armed with nuclear warheads. All of this consumes about eighty cents of every defense dollar, or more than $200 billion. No one, not even Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, claims that the Reagan buildup will dramatically change the basic force structure.

So where does all the extra money go? Basically, it pays for three things. It means higher salaries for our men and women in uniform. They were shortchanged in favor of hardware during the 1970s to the point where you began to read stories about sailors and their families on food stamps. It’s not fair to balance budgets by squeezing servicemen’s pay, but it’s more than a question of equity. As military pay lags behind pay for civilian jobs, the armed services lose the expensively trained specialists who know how to operate high-tech weaponry. Lousy pay for enlistees will also doom the all-volunteer army and hasten the return of the draft.

The Reagan buildup is also buying what the military calls “readiness” — keeping the forces in fighting trim, ready to go. This means maintenance and spare parts, adequate reserves of ammunition, gasoline and other supplies. It means expensive training exercises that eat up those stockpiles. During the Seventies, readiness was also slighted in the defense budgets, and you began to see stories about fighter planes that couldn’t fly because they lacked spare parts, or combat units with only enough ammo to fight a few days. Those shortages are being eliminated.

But, most important, the Reagan buildup is buying modern hardware, a veritable orgy of new tanks, rockets, nukes, airplanes, ships, personnel carriers and other weapons that mainly replace the old ones and don’t expand the basic forces. The president defends his forced-march procurement by emphasizing that most of the Pentagon budget goes to manpower and readiness. He is correct, of course, but that evades the lopsided nature of what he has ordered — acquiring dozens of high-tech weapons, many of which still don’t work. The procurement budget for fiscal year 1981 was $48 billion, but now Reagan’s is up to $81 billion. By 1987, it could hit $155 billion. That’s some $728 billion spent on defense contracts in only seven years.

The python can’t swallow that pig. Indeed, it’s worse than that, because nearly every weapons system is low-balled in the Reagan budget. Actual costs are grossly underestimated, in the time-tested Pentagon tradition. Later, when the price tag has tripled or quadrupled, Congress can’t turn back because it has already invested billions.

This is the essence of the crisis Kuhn, Aspin and others foresee: the escalating cost of these new trinkets is going to overwhelm everything else. Examples: the army’s Hell-fire missile now costs three times the Pentagon’s original estimate; the M-1 tank costs seven times more; the navy’s F-18 costs four times more. As these prices go up, the Pentagon is forced to buy fewer of each item. That has the perverse effect of driving prices still higher because the manufacturer’s per-unit costs have gone up. As Kuhn points out in great detail, the new high-tech equipment also adds disproportionately to readiness costs. Keeping an elaborate gizmo in working order costs a lot more than maintaining a simpler weapon. The Pentagon underestimates that, too.

The solution is obvious, but also most unlikely in political terms. This year, before it is too late, Congress should rewrite Reagan’s defense program, just as it is scurrying to correct the excesses of his tax and budget policies. That would require a general freeze on procurement, canceling many of the dubious weapons and slowing down others. The Pentagon is also sitting on about $38 billion in cash — “unobligated balances” already appropriated for military programs but still unspent. If Congress were courageous enough to cancel the new toys, it could also take back a big chunk of that money. This would help reduce the awesome federal deficit, and it would also avert the defense deficits that lie ahead.

Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t behave that way. Instead of cutting fat, it cuts muscle. Instead of canceling new weapons, it usually carves the money out of other accounts, such as manpower and readiness. New weapons mean defense contracts and jobs back in home districts, but the public doesn’t notice if the troops don’t have enough ammo or if experienced soldiers quit because of low pay. This is approximately what happened to the defense budget in the past, and the process already has started again. When Weinberger proposed his token reduction of $8 billion to pacify the budget cutters, he took the money out of pay and readiness. Americans will literally be paying more to get less in national defense.

There is another way to cut the defense budget, a more radical approach that, in the long run, is the only way to produce substantial reductions. Instead of blaming generals and admirals, Americans should zero in on the statesmen who have created our far-flung defense commitments.

A few hearty souls — conservatives and liberals alike — understand this, but not many. Last summer, Representative Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, offered a drastic solution to our budget problems: bring half of our overseas troops home by 1986. Her amendment lost by 314 to 87, but I predict support for it will get stronger. Schroeder puts it this way: “We are getting all of the burdens of empire and none of the benefits.”

Earl Ravenal was a top Pentagon analyst under both Presidents Johnson and Nixon and is now a foreign-policy expert at George-town University. He also happens to be a libertarian conservative, and he argues that the U.S. could save $60 billion to $100 billion a year with a more rational definition — what we will defend and where we will fight — of our foreign interests. “Our predicament is not a thing of one or two budget seasons,” Ravenal insists. “It is one of historical proportion — nothing less than the situation of a mature ‘imperial’ power … beset by multiple challenges but unable to generate sufficient resources for the defense of its extensive perimeter.”

When one spreads the defense over the globe, the first thing that becomes obvious is that we are spending hundreds of billions for allies who not only won’t pay for their own defense but whose robust economies are gouging us in the marketplace. Smart businessmen do not subsidize their competitors, but that is essentially what our cold-war obsession does. It’s time to look at the world afresh and see the new realities:

Asia. By Ravenal’s calculation, the U.S. spends $39 billion a year defending Asia. America supports a total of 147,000 troops there, 90,000 of them in South Korea and Japan. Every year we beseech Japan and Korea to spend more on their own defense and they nod politely, knowing that Uncle Sam’s diplomats lack the courage to enforce their demands.

Korea is a choice example of how the cold-war mentality has atrophied our thinking. American boys have been stationed there for thirty years. Richard Nixon brought home one division in 1970, but when Jimmy Carter tried to bring home part of the other one, the hawks brandished “new” intelligence reports that hyped the threat of an invasion by North Korea. If you ask foreign-policy types when our troops might come home from Korea, the answer seems to be never. They mumble about the threat of North Korea, but then they get around to the real reason — bringing home the U.S. division in Korea would upset the Japanese. Lord knows, we don’t want to do that.

A more imaginative approach would start not with troop withdrawals, but with hard-headed diplomacy. Cut a deal with Communist China on the long-term stability of the Korean peninsula, including our diplomatic recognition of North Korea. Its president, Kim Il Sung, can’t fight if China is on our side. Then we buy our way out by giving the South Koreans a few billion to beef up their own defenses. It saves money and it also recognizes, at long last, the existing reality.

Europe. Ravenal figures we spend $129 billion a year on NATO defenses, including 355,000 troops, two-thirds of them in West Germany. Plus all those nukes. We have four divisions in Europe and another six at home committed to war there, but outside the military, nobody seriously believes the Soviets are preparing to sweep across the Rhine. The real underlying arguments for our continuing commitment are political: our fifteen NATO allies would go bananas if we changed anything and would soon be at one another’s throats.

Bringing home some, if not all, of our troops from Europe isn’t an isolationist policy; it is the recognition that the European allies are stronger and more mature after thirty years of American patronage. If Western Europe had the same proportion of citizens in uniform as we have, you wouldn’t need a single American soldier there. If American troops in Europe are merely a tripwire to guarantee our commitment, then we can make the same gesture with half as many.

Persian Gulf. We spend another $36 billion defending other areas of the world, the biggest share committed to the Arab oil fields. This includes the equivalent of four divisions that are at the same time devoted to Europe, a strategic contradiction. In terms of crass self-interest, the Persian Gulf strategy seems more intelligent than some of our other commitments. After all, we want that oil, and we don’t want the Russians to have it. Yet, once again, we are carrying the load for Europe and Japan, our economic competitors, who depend much more heavily on Persian Gulf oil than we do. Ravenal and others have calculated the cost-benefit ratio of our commitment there and conclude that it actually costs America more to defend the Persian Gulf than the damage we would suffer from an oil cutoff. It would be cheaper to develop energy alternatives. At the very least, the Europeans and the Japanese ought to pick up some of the tab.

All this sounds loony, I know, to those who are used to assuming that the Russians are coming and that the world gets more and more dangerous as we spend more and more to protect ourselves. Sooner or later, maybe people will begin to grasp that we are strong as a nation, that we don’t have to play cop on every street corner of the world. Anyway, the way things are going, we can no longer afford it.

In This Article: Coverwall, Ronald Reagan, US Military


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