How Much Is Enough?

US Defense Spending

During the Kennedy-Johnson-McNamara years of the Cold War, the ritualized question over national defense was “how much is enough?” The “how much” referred to what military capability was needed to defend and deter against the Soviet China and Red China, largely measured in numbers of nuclear weapons, and what should be spent on acquiring the overall defense needs.

What has changed over the half century since President John Kennedy took office is too dramatic and profound to be thoroughly examined in a short column. The end of the global communist threat; the transformation of national defense into the far broader category of national security in which military force may or may not be necessary to gain that security and is surely not sufficient alone to succeed; and the globalization and diffusion of all forms of power are headlines marking these changes.

Today, the American-led military coalition is out of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan will be over by 2014 for coalition military operations. Thus, the question of how much is enough to defend this nation and the West is indeed relevant.

Against that background, about three-quarters of Americans asked say defense spending should be cut. This is precisely is what is happening in virtually all Western democracies although China and Russia seem bent on taking opposite steps in pouring more money into defense.

Under current plans, the annual U.S. defense budget of about $700 billion has been cut by $50 billion for each of the next 10 years. Unfortunately, for sins long in place, no one really knows where all that money has gone despite continuous calls for reforming and modernizing the Pentagon’s antique accounting system — much of it legislated by Congress. And if the Budget Impoundment Act takes force this January, defense will be hit for an additional $50 billion a year cut for 10 years.

The Pentagon and the supporting defense industries have declared the second round of cuts as catastrophic if so-called sequestration takes place not only for the amount. The law calls for these cuts to be made “evenly” across each program which is defined as “equally” meaning that every program irrespective of its size or character will be reduced by about 15 percent.

But the more exquisite problems are that the fiscal year will be about one-third over when or if sequestration takes place mandating that cuts must be taken over the shorter period exacerbating their effects.

And no matter who wins the election in November, it will be months before the new Congress and the next administration are fully in place with staffs and officials capable of doing business. So making rational sense of an irrational law in terms of how it is administered will be very difficult.

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has promised that his administration will increase defense spending. But Romney hasn’t made the case as to why more money is needed. Nor has he explained where that money would come from except by increasing the already unsustainable $1.3 trillion annual deficit that is only likely to grow not shrink. And, who is the enemy or enemies for whom more defense spending is needed to deter, given the United States and its allies already account for more than two-thirds of all the money allocated to defense globally, is unstated.

That said, America desperately needs to do what it cannot: It must have a serious debate on its national security. Of course, the United States needs to have a serious debate about many things from reforming entitlement programs and an impossible tax code to providing real government for its citizens. Given years of inaction and deferral, there is no reason to think that any answer as to how much is enough for defense will be forthcoming anytime soon.

One lesson from history and the Kennedy administration is salutary, possibly in the extreme. Successfully running on the falsehood of a “missile gap” with Soviet Russia (indeed Moscow had at best a handful of missiles to America’s thousands), Kennedy gathered his joint chiefs of staff in the White House in early 1961 to define America’s nuclear needs. The U.S. Army and Air Force chiefs made their case for thousands of new bombers and missiles.

The Navy chief, Adm. Arleigh Burke was silent. Kennedy had served in the Pacific during World War II as a young officer where Burke became a legend for his heroic actions. “Admiral,” the young president asked. “You are silent. Why?”

Burke explained that he was old and lucky enough to grow up in the West when there were cowboys. But he never saw a cowboy wearing three guns. “Two guns,” said Burke “were usually enough.”

Today, Burke’s wisdom very much applies in answering how much for defense. Two guns are usually enough! 

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council and Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Image: us_weapons.jpg