Editorial

The very point of the Pentagon’s quadrennial review of its military planning is to take account of changes in the world that affect this country’s defense needs. The most recent review, presented last spring by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, demonstrates that our military establishment has missed the point. The world has changed greatly. The Pentagon has not. The better part of a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon has let stand a defense doctrine inherited from the Bush administration: America ought to be able to fight two major wars simultaneously in different parts of the world without the assistance of allies. In the post-Soviet era this doctrine has outlived its usefulness and needlessly drains the country’s resources.

Thus, the newly approved Gingrich-Clinton budget calls for roughly $265 billion in defense spending in fiscal year 1998. That sum accounts for 50 percent of total discretionary spending in the new budget. The next largest item-$31 billion-is for education. True, the Department of Defense (DOD)’s annual budget has declined steadily since the mid-1980s’ Reagan arms build-up (down from $405 billion in 1985 to $268 billion last year-both figures in 1997 dollars), but that should not obscure the real issue: Given the end of the cold war, why are we still spending so much? In point of fact, DOD’s budget this year is larger than the next eight leading national defense budgets combined (as calculated by the Center for Defense Information), and five-and-one-half times larger than second-place Russia’s ($48 billion).

When Secretary Cohen presented the 1997 review, he left intact the two-war doctrine that includes a ten-division army, a navy with twelve aircraft-carrier battle groups, and an air force sporting twenty fighting-wings. Yet even military analysts like William E. Odom of the Hudson Institute (Foreign Affairs, July/August 1997) and Lawrence J. Korb of the Brookings Institution (an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration), argue that a new defense strategy is required for a new era. Korb (New York Times, May 22) recommends a plan that would equip the United States for waging one full-scale war, while simultaneously handling a number of smaller peace-keeping missions abroad. Such a policy, he says, could be achieved with the help of our allies while still enabling the United States to maintain its superior military-technological edge. According to Korb, this could be done while allowing the United States to accrue budget savings of $100 billion over the next five years. As now projected, the Clinton administration plans to add to DOD’s budget in that time frame and to increase spending for new weapons by 40 percent.

This compulsion for growth and new weapons plays out across the board and has negative ramifications for U.S. security. While the National Academy of Sciences was recently calling for drastic reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles (down to 300 apiece, enough to maintain and insure deterrence), U.S. government scientists were building extensive new facilities for nuclear-weapons physics (for example, at Livermore, California), and developing the B61-11 bomb, an earth-penetrating nuclear weapon (see, End Run, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council in August). Meantime, the Energy Department was proceeding with plans to use a civilian nuclear power reactor to produce tritium for nuclear weapons. The use of a civilian reactor for weapons production would be a first for the United States and would undercut the moral distinction we have relied on to face down countries like North Korea when they have been tempted to use civilian reactors for weapons development.

There is yet another force at work stoking the military buildup: The highly lucrative, politically astute U.S. defense industry. Recent mergers and acquisitions have consolidated its proficiency. Coupled with the decline of Russian arms production, U.S. market share worldwide has skyrocketed. We now account for more than half the world export market in weapons, including 70 percent of sales to the third world-a percentage that is sure to rise now that the Clinton administration has mistakenly lifted a twenty-year ban on arms sales to Latin America. Furthermore, to help boost such sales, the U.S. Government provides the services of 6,400 full-time employees at the Pentagon and the State and Commerce Departments (see, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1997).

During the course of the cold war, the U.S. defense industry developed a highly successful strategy, not only for delivering weapons but for building its own profitability. In the first stage, using taxpayer money, it manufactures and sells new weapons to our armed services. Then, down the road a few years-with additional government loans and subsidies-it sells the same basic equipment to foreign governments (for example, sophisticated F-15 and F-16 fighter jets). Should those other governments default on their payments (and nearly $10 billion has been lost since 1990), the U.S. taxpayer picks up the bill for the manufacturer, through a 1995 arms-export loan program guaranteed by the U.S. Government.

The sale of top-of-the-line hardware abroad has another benefit for the industry. It assures manufacturers that the U.S. military itself will always feel constrained to keep ahead of the pack, propelling an unending quest for newer, more advanced weapons systems superior to those previously exported. As a result, the U.S. is currently committed to buying 4,500 new aircraft at a cost of $350 billion.

Does this policy still serve the nation’s defense needs? And do these bloated outlays address the real needs of our citizens, let alone those of the developing nations who are paying dearly for imported arms? With no near military rival on the horizon-including a restive China-U.S. defense expenditures are an extravagance that detracts from other needs like education, creation and maintenance of housing and infrastructure, environmental reclamation, and jobs development. It is time we came to terms with our victory and used our resources more wisely.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 
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