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More Defense Dollars, Less Security

By Ivan Eland
February 7, 2006

Editor's Note: Since taking office in 2001 -- and especially after the Sept. 11 terror attacks -- George W. Bush has pursued a national security policy combining aggressive military strategies abroad and greater authoritarianism at home.

Citing the indefinite War on Terror as justification, Bush has claimed the power to make war without congressional approval, ordered arrests without trial, countenanced abuse of prisoners without respect for international law, and authorized electronic surveillance of Americans without warrants. Bush insists that he either can interpret restrictive laws as he sees fit or override them with his "plenary" -- or unlimited -- powers as Commander in Chief.

Whenever questioned about his expansive views of his own power, Bush argues that he is simply protecting American lives. A similar rationale has been used to push through major increases in military spending. But the lingering question remains: Is this sacrifice of freedom, tax money and the lives of American soldiers making the nation safer or putting it at ever more risk. This guest essay by the Independent Institute's Ivan Eland looks at that question:

The Bush administration’s newly released Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), outlining its defense strategy, forces, and weapons programs, and its accompanying defense budget demonstrate that throwing money at national defense won’t make Americans safer at home.

 This bloated defense budget, already more than $500 billion per year (including the expenses for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), will be hiked by 7 percent. Yet most of that budget will not be spent on “defense,” which is only a small part of the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) budget.

Instead, most of the money will be spent on offensively-oriented U.S. forces and enhance their ability to rapidly conduct imperial forays in far-flung corners of the world, including the Middle East.

Since retaliation for such adventures is the reason terrorist groups strike U.S. targets, Americans can expect more such attacks at home and abroad. Even the new counterterrorism strategy of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff admits that ill-conceived military operations could swell the ranks of terrorists.

Although the first responsibility of any government—including the U.S. government—is to protect its people, U.S. taxpayer dollars are being used to promote overseas empire at the expense of citizens’ security. Traditionally, “threats” from abroad were used to plan U.S. military forces and the strategy used to employ them. After the Cold War ended, however, this approach went out of favor because most of the threats evaporated.

The continuation of massive U.S. defense budgets—U.S. expenditures for national defense are equivalent to the total defense budgets of at least the next 13 highest spending nations combined—had to be justified by some other means. So the Pentagon moved to “capabilities-based” planning.

This slogan merely means that new weapons technology can be developed and existing weapons can continue to be purchased, even though no threat exists for them to counter.

For example, the stealth F/A-22 fighter, the first squadron of which just recently became operational, was designed to counter Soviet fighters that were never built. Now the main threat to U.S. fighter aircraft is not aircraft from other nations, but ground-based surface-to-air missiles that can be avoided by flying around them.

This program should have been terminated long ago but is kept alive because it provides jobs in many congressional districts across the country. Similarly, the U.S. is building new classes of CVN-21 aircraft carriers, Virginia-class submarines and DD(X) destroyers when the threat from other naval powers is negligible. Yet the QDR eliminates none of these unneeded or Cold War weapon systems, although the DoD has more weapons on the books than it can pay for even with its massive budget.

'War on Terror'

The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent amorphous and unending “war on terror” have allowed the Pentagon to justify higher defense budgets—including the aforementioned weapons not suited to fighting terrorists or guerrillas—to a security-conscious public for the indefinite future. Yet such adversaries can be best fought with infantry, special forces, and existing aircraft.

The United States certainly does not need to spend $11 billion a year on only a minimal defense against attack from nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. The more likely threat is terrorists smuggling a nuclear weapon into a port on a ship, rather than launching it on a missile that they don’t have the technology to develop.

In the QDR, the DoD promises to make homeland defense a greater priority. But according to Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, the reality is that the Pentagon spends more on missile defense than the Coast Guard, which combats more likely threats.

Even military systems that could be used in fighting terrorists and guerillas need to be effective and cost efficient. The Marine Corps’ V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft—which takes off and lands like a helicopter, but flies like a fixed wing propeller plane—has had development problems, including many crashes, and significant cost overruns.

Although the aircraft would be good for hauling Marines fighting terrorists or guerillas into remote areas with no airfields, the plane should be cancelled because of its exorbitant costs and meager advantages over existing helicopters.

Because of the Pentagon’s capabilities-based approach, the QDR fails to assign priorities to the few remaining threats. For example, what should be the highest priority for scarce resources: countering the threat from al Qaeda, the potential threat from an Iran or North Korea with nuclear weapons, or the possible threat from a rising great power—such as China or India?

In short, the Bush administration needs to match its rhetoric with action, putting “defense” back into U.S. defense policy and eliminating weapons that don’t fit that strategy. This change in policy would make Americans richer and safer.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.


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