Defense Budget and Modernization Plans

Key Problems

  • Military spending is projected to remain high: totaling more than 80% of the cold war annual average through this decade.
  • The U.S. spends more on defense than the next eight leading industrial nations combined, including Russia and China.
  • The loose consensus within the defense community about the merits of the Bottom Up Review strategy (the concept of simultaneously fighting two regional wars) has unraveled in the face of questions both about cost and the potential threats facing the U.S.
  • Little consideration has been given to alternative security approaches that would lessen the drive to develop the most advanced weapon systems.

The end of the cold war sparked contentious debate about what constitutes the most effective and least expensive security policy. Defense-spending advocates expressed concern that military spending in 1996 declined in real terms by one-third and weapons procurement by two-thirds from the 1989 cold war peak. The Republican-controlled Congress balked at further cuts and voted an additional $11 billion above what the Pentagon requested for 1997. Yet, even after taking into account proposed congressional increases for future defense budgets, scheduled spending will still fall by 8% between 1997 and 2002.

What is often overlooked in this debate, however, is that military spending is projected to remain high: totaling more than 80% of the cold war annual average (adjusted for inflation) through the end of this decade. The U.S. spends more on defense than the next eight leading industrial nations combined, including Russia and China.

The Clinton administration’s 1993 Bottom-up Review (BUR) of the military argued that, in the post-cold war era, the U.S. must maintain the capacity to wage and win two major regional conflicts simultaneously. But the initial loose consensus within the defense community about the merits of the BUR strategy has unraveled in the face of questions about both its cost and the potential threats facing the United States. Defense hawks argue that the U.S. faces both a modernization and a readiness crisis due to insufficient funding for procurement, training, maintenance, and operations. Critics outside the defense establishment argue that the two-wars strategy is unrealistic and is being used to inflate defense budgets.

In 1996 Congress sought to redefine the debate by mandating a “quadrennial review” of force requirements and by establishing on “independent” National Defense Panel (appointed by the Secretary of Defense) to assess alternative security force structures to meet potential threats. Both studies are to be completed in 1997. But a key issue neglected in the two ongoing assessments is whether the probable threats to U.S. interests can really justify many of the new systems in the procurement and research budgets.

Throughout 1995-96 major points of contention between the administration and Congress concerned the pace of modernization and the size and composition of the Pentagon’s procurement budget. Congress voted an additional $5.7 billion (plus $5.3 billion more for research & development and operations & maintenance) above the administration’s $38.9 billion procurement budget. The administration, in turn, argued that these increases would jeopardize its modernization program, which is slated to grow to $60.1 billion in 2001—40% real growth over the president’s 1997 request. Critics argue that both the administration and Congress have failed to stop pork-barrel add-ons (such as the procurement of additional F-16 combat aircraft), unnecessary funding for cold war systems (such as the B-2 bomber and the Seawolf submarine), and dubious modernization plans (such as the New Attack Submarine and National Ballistic Missile Defense).

Less widely debated is the nature of the post-cold war security doctrines that have been developed to justify these contending perspectives on military budgets. The administration has argued that the nation’s security is best protected by maintaining a qualitative superiority over all potential foes through the development of high-tech conventional weapons that provide a more flexible and discriminate means of attack. By contrast, Republican leaders have argued for a more muscular military. With bigger budgets, it is argued, the military could acquire the next generation of aircraft, ships, and submarines and could deploy a national missile defense—thereby ably guarding the U.S. against all potential threats. Little consideration, however, has been given by either the administration or Congress to alternative security approaches that would lessen the drive to develop the most advanced weapon systems.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • Reliance on technological military superiority may provoke dangerous responses that threaten U.S. security.
  • Both the administration and the Republicans fail to address the long-standing causes of nuclear proliferation.
  • Cuts in foreign assistance, arms-control and disarmament initiatives, and UN peacekeeping operations leave the U.S. with fewer foreign policy instruments.

The administration claims that its new security doctrine and procurement scrap the cold war baggage and create a leaner, more affordable defense budget. Yet, at least $56 billion in cold war weapon systems are slated for development over the next five years, including the Seawolf submarine, Comanche helicopter, B-2 bomber, and C-17A aircraft. Another $43 billion is planned for “modernization” of advanced weaponry, like the Joint Strike Fighters—whose ultimate price tag will likely be some $200 billion. In addition, the U.S. will devote several billion dollars for research toward the creation of a National Ballistic Missile Defense that will guard against threats that even U.S. intelligence agencies deem to be extremely remote.

The reason for the bulk of scheduled military procurements is a new concept of U.S. defense. The Pentagon has revised its earlier strategy of deterrence, which posited that the threat of massive retaliation against a potential enemy would be sufficient to prevent aggression. Despite the absence of a no-first-use policy, U.S. political and military leaders dared not use their most powerful weapons. But in today’s world the U.S. arsenal of increasingly lethal, high-tech conventional weapons can be readily used—even though these weapons may not be as precise as widely advertised.

Military planners believe that the combination of precision-guided, conventional weapons with advanced information and surveillance systems gives the U.S. military a decisive advantage that can be used as a credible deterrent against potential adversaries. Indeed, the leading edge of modernization policy is focused on acquiring such weapons, additional air cargo planes and sealift ships for rapid troop deployment, and new information systems, sensors, communications, computing, and surveillance technologies. As the Gulf War demonstrated (albeit imperfectly), these technologies act as a “force multiplier,” permitting the rapid fielding of a relatively smaller military force, while maintaining a decisive military advantage on the battlefield.

Reliance on technological superiority for security, however, may provoke dangerous responses that end up actually threatening U.S. security. For example, since Russia cannot hope to match these high-tech conventional capabilities, it may opt to maintain its present nuclear arsenal or decide not to ratify and implement the START II Treaty. Nonnuclear nations may be encouraged to acquire biological and chemical weapons and other advanced capabilities. U.S. superiority may also encourage greater reliance on terrorism by some nation-states or substate groups as an effective and cheap counterstrategy. Other nations may respond by hoarding excess military equipment and troops in hopes of quantitatively responding to their perceived and actual qualitative disadvantage with respect to the U.S.

Some Republican leaders assert the need to prepare for these proliferation threats by seeking to accelerate the development and deployment of theater and national ballistic missile capabilities—even though such a strategy would require a breakout from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and would further retard denuclearization efforts. Meanwhile, congressional cuts in foreign assistance, arms-control and disarmament initiatives, and UN peacekeeping operations leave the U.S. with fewer foreign policy instruments. This increases U.S. reliance on unilateral military action.

Both the administration and the Republicans fail to address the long-standing causes of nuclear proliferation. The Nuclear Suppliers Regime, an arrangement among nuclear powers to regulate the technology, relies on a national and industrial self-policing process often undercut by promotional trade policies. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is responsible for implementing nonproliferation efforts, lacks the capacity and clout necessary to fully implement its mission.

The expanding arsenals of so-called dual-use technologies, which can be used as essential components for weapons of mass destruction, also pose a real proliferation threat (see In Focus: Defense Conversion). Such serious problems are not adequately addressed by current arms-control and disarmament agreements and are continually being undermined by the lucrative dual-use trade. Although the newly forged Wassenaar Arrangement sets up a forum of Western and former Soviet bloc nations to search for cooperative solutions to curb conventional and dual-use technology transfers, this arrangement is marred by significant shortcomings. Especially problematic is its reliance on national self-policing and the lack of clear separation between national trade-promotion functions and regulation.

U.S. arms-trade policy promotes the export of high-tech conventional weapons in the name of preserving the defense industrial base (see In Focus: Controlling U.S. Arms Sales). U.S. arms producers, then, use these arms exports to justify U.S. government spending for the next generation of advanced weaponry, which is needed to counter the threats posed by a world armed with U.S. weapons exports.

The Joint Strike Fighter contract is a case in point. It is estimated to be worth $750 billion when overseas sales are added in. Yet cost is not the only problem. Since advanced combat aircraft have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons, their sales overseas exacerbates nuclear proliferation potential. The arms trade contributes to regional instability and may could have a boomerang effect by providing weapons to clients that may later become into enemies.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • Domestic and international security may be enhanced at far lower costs to the U.S. by investment in new international security institutions.
  • A more comprehensive inspection process must have the powers to police supplier countries in both the industrialized North and in the developing world.
  • The challenge is to secure ratification and implementation of START II while fulfilling (in spirit and letter) both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by further elimination of nuclear arsenals.

Although the Clinton administration has substantially changed U.S. security doctrine, it has preserved the goal of spending what it takes to maintain clear technological superiority over all potential adversaries. But many post-cold war problems—such as proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, instability in the former Soviet bloc, and regional and ethnic conflicts—require entirely new approaches to security. Domestic and international security may be enhanced at far lower costs to the U.S. by investment in new international security institutions.

The current capacity of the United Nations falls far short of what is needed to address the wide array of post-cold war regional crises, but the world has made some progress toward building an international peacekeeping system. Yet, the collective security doctrine of NATO is woefully inadequate to the task in Bosnia, as are the anemic and underfunded capabilities of UN peacekeeping and diplomacy efforts.

There is a need to beef up the international capacity of the UN and other regional and multilateral institutions in order to deal with conflicts outside the realm of traditional U.S. security interests. This requires additional support for UN peacekeeping and conflict-resolution efforts, including a strengthened International Court of Justice and increased funding for refugee repatriation and reconstruction operations.

Proliferation problems require a fundamental reexamination of current international inspection approaches. A more comprehensive inspection process must have the powers to police the supplier countries in both the industrialized North and in the developing world.

More intrusive inspection could reduce the risks associated with high-technology trade while providing a level playing field for businesses that supply nonnuclear states with advanced technologies. This approach would thereby reduce justifications for large-scale military investment in counterproliferation and antiballistic missile technologies.

The U.S. should build on those bilateral and multilateral disarmament agreements that have actually eliminated arms, rather than those that attempt to regulate the production rates and types of weapons to be deployed. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the START I Treaty have shown that verifiable disarmament is feasible and is far more effective and less expensive than new additional arms races. The challenge is to secure ratification and implementation of START II while fulfilling (in spirit and letter) both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by further elimination of nuclear arsenals.

Passage and implementation of the Hatfield-McKinney Code of Conduct for Arms Sales would help this effort by restraining arms exports and barring weapons transfers to undemocratic governments. Meanwhile, the Wassenaar Arrangement will, for the first time, convene the major powers to consider how conventional arms transfers might affect stability in given regions.

These options could lay the foundation for a post-cold war order that does not depend so heavily on the unilateral projection of U.S. military power. It could also provide a process and a capacity for addressing long-standing international disputes and conflicts not on the U.S. geostrategic agenda.

The build-up of international security institutions would initially require the investment of several billion dollars annually by member nations. But in the long run, these same nations could curtail their military expenditures as the international peacemaking, peace enhancement, and peacekeeping process becomes increasingly capable of guaranteeing security. Such an approach to security could dramatically reduce the need to invest in expensive modernization programs.

Written by Greg Bischak, National Commission for Economic
Conversion and Disarmament.