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We Should Slice the Pentagon Budget—It Would Save Trillions and Rescue America

Why is Congress trying to allocate $601 billion to the military?
 
 
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Next week, Congress will begin debate on a roughly $601 billion Pentagon budget for FY2015.  Before we let this pass unchallenged, let's take a few minutes to put it in some historical perspective.

For 40 years, as the United States waged Cold War against the U.S.S.R. and hot wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Pentagon budget fluctuated between a high of $632 billion in 1952 at the height of the Korean War and lows of $386 billion in 1954 and 1975 when we returned to a "peacetime" military budget at the end of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  (These amounts are in "constant" 2014 dollars from Pentagon documents*, and I'll keep using those figures throughout this article so that you can be sure we're comparing "apples to apples.")  Pentagon spending peaked again at $554 billion at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 and at $586 billion in 1985 at the peak of what Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb called "a wartime buildup without a war."

So, as we transition away from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, why is Congress debating a Pentagon budget that splits the difference between the budgets for 1952 and 1985, the two highest peaks of Cold War military spending?

On December 12th 1989, Senator Jim Sasser of Tennessee, the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, recognized a "unique moment in world history."  As his committee debated the previously unthinkable end of the Cold War, Senator Sasser dared to imagine what we could do with the money we were going to save, and he hailed it as "the dawn of the primacy of domestic economics."

Two of the experts called to testify before Senator Sasser's committee that day were former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and former Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb.  McNamara and Korb agreed that the $533 billion Pentagon budget should be cut in half, starting with 5% cuts every year for the next 10 years, to leave the country with a peacetime military budget of $267 billion in today's dollars by the year 2003.

There were small cuts in the U.S. military budget through most of the 1990s, and the 1998 Pentagon budget of $392 billion almost matched the Cold War low of $386 billion from 1954 and 1975.  So we have returned to that "Cold War peacetime military budget" three times in the past 60 years, after the end of the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War.  One has to ask, "Why should the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars be any different?"  And yet Congress is debating a $601 billion Pentagon budget that is still 56% or $215 billion above that Cold War baseline.

But we must also recognize that $386 billion per year was never a real peacetime military budget.  It was a baseline during the quieter periods of the most expensive arms race in history, against a serious military competitor with a nuclear arsenal that peaked at 45,000 warheads, a 5 million man army and a weapons industry to match our own. So the question that Senator Sasser was asking in 1989 was not whether Congress could once again cut Pentagon funding to its 1954 or 1975 level, but how far it could cut below that in the absence of the Cold War arms race.

Robert McNamara, a Democrat, and Lawrence Korb, a Republican and former Reagan official, were unanimous and specific in their call for a 50% cut over 10 to 13 years to $267 billion per year, less than half what we're spending today.  McNamara called for scrapping the B-2 bomber, which eventually cost an incredible $45 billion for 21 planes. He also wanted to abandon the V-22 Osprey, which is still in production 25 years later despite fatal crashes and huge cost overruns, eating up $54 billion for 400 troop transport planes that take off like helicopters - or $135 million per plane.

 
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