The National Defense Panel Wants More Money for Defense. That’s Just Not Happening.

At the end of July, the congressionally-mandated National Defense Panel released its assessment of 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review QDR), with the inspiring title Ensuring a Strong US Defense for the FutureThe panel, hosted by the US Institute for Peace, was composed of an august group of former generals, legislators, and Pentagon officials. Their early August release, though, was more noticed by bloggers and specialists than the mainstream press. In Commentary magazine, Max Boot called the panel’s findings a “bombshell”. But whether the American armed forces are as unprepared or American allies are as spooked as the panel believes, their recommended solution to these perceived problems is a non-starter.


That’s because, as Byron Callan of Capital Alpha noted, the NDP is substantially just another plea for more money. The authors are “particularly troubled” (see page 8) by the sequestering discipline imposed by the Budget Control Act. A more throught-through financial approach would have been preferable, but the Obama Administration squandered its opportunity to get the Defense Department on a fiscally sustainable glide path. And so we find ourselves with the problem of the first instance: there’s something off about borrowing money in China to build ships and aircraft to ward off a war with China.


The second problem with the recommendation is that American resolve for spending and resolve for fighting are not congruent. Which of these doubting allies can credibly claim that the United States needs to spend more on defense? Warsaw, for example, may be concerned about Washington’s only modest deployments of jets in Central Europe, but if the Polish government were really that nervous about events in Ukraine, more Polish money would be flowing into Polish armaments.
In any case, more spending in the United States is wholly unnecessary. The US and its allies already account for more than three-quarters of all global military expenditures. If they can’t police the globe with that percentage, they’re just not spending the money wisely. Here the panel was unhelpful, with few elucidations of the evolving threat, with the notable exception of the claim that the Chinese Navy might have 350 ocean-going ships by 2020, the observation that the Iranians are still working on the bomb, and the old news that the North Koreans have already gotten theirs.
Where they were helpful was with their demand for details about the QDR”s emphasis on innovation. Calling for thinking different is admittedly “appealing in a period of transition and declining resources” (page 50). But innovation, the NDP authors wrote, is often hazily invoked as a substitute for actual investment. Rather, the panel argued, Pentagon planning for innovation must be more specified in promising technological areas, targeted against acute military needs, and resourced adequately.
What the panel missed was where that extra cash must come from. With money tight, resources must mean the proceeds of divestitures of underperforming parts of the portfolio. The Air Force leadership thinks that means dumping A-10s to pay for F-35s; the Congress largely disagrees. Either way, money isn’t everything; as Ivan Arreguín-Toft has shown, the weak win wars too. So it was timely how Clark Murdock of the CSIS, in an editorial last week in Defense News, emphasized affordability as the key to future American defense plans. As Robert Haddick observed in his review of the NDP at War On The Rockstruly new ideas are needed. The QDR wholly ignored choices, and that was lamentable. The NDP avoided them by asking for a bigger allowance, but taxpayers are not in the mood.
James Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.