Lawrence Korb: No Matter How Much You Spend, You Can’t Buy Security
Americans – you and me — spend lots of money to maintain the most lethal military machine in world history. “No matter how much you spend on defense, you can’t buy perfect security,” says former Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb. “It’s all about making choices and trade-offs as you look at what role you want the United States to play around the world.”
Here’s a contemporary question: Can the $700 billion Pentagon annual budget remain sacred and out-of-bounds while the rest of fiscal Washington teeters on collapse? Korb and two other panelists said no when they addressed World Affairs Council of Atlanta members last week.
Washington is in constipation over national debt and possible default this summer. No party, no person and no idea have gained the high ground in a partisan argument that long ago went way past nasty. Whether U.S. military cuts could help the budget is almost never seriously discussed. Whether we are prepared for the right enemy should be constantly in question.
When he delivered an address last week in Washington outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “Our record of predicting where we will use military force since Vietnam is perfect — we have never once gotten it right.” Gates will leave his post this month. Among his outgoing thoughts, “I’ve said repeatedly that I’d rather have a smaller, but superbly capable military than a larger, hollow, less capable one. However we need to be honest … that a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things.”
Korb, along with Daniel Papp and Robert Kennedy, advanced a compelling argument during their World Affairs Council of Atlanta appearance that the military budget no longer fits the military mission, the budget is unaffordable in current economics and that our political and military leaders continue to overreact ten years after 9/11.
The 9/11 point was perhaps articulated best by Kennesaw State University president Papp whose resume includes senior research professor positions at the U.S. Army War College and many other military analysis assignments.
“Many congressmen and congresswomen who I’ve talked to firmly believe they cannot broach cuts in defense because they would not be re-elected because the American people would respond by voting for their opponents,” Papp said. “As a result of that very understandable continuing impact of 9/11, in many of our representatives’ eyes the defense budget is sacred.”
The Pentagon spends north of $550 billion annually in its baseline budget and it engages in Iraq and Afghanistan on another $150 billion in supplemental appropriations. The baseline budget is roughly $100 billion greater per year in inflation adjusted dollars than what it cost to outlast the Soviet Union in the Cold War. “As far as I know, we prevailed in the Cold War,” Korb noted.
You can maintain a lot of military stuff for $700 billion. The U.S. deploys eleven aircraft carrier groups; no other country has more than two; Russia has one. The Pentagon has 1,900 nuclear missiles online and 5,000 offline, which Korb said costs some $30 billion to maintain.
Eighty thousand Americans are stationed in Europe. “For what,” Korb asked. “Hitler’s dead. Stalin’s dead. The Cold War is over, so why do we still have 80,000 troops? The reason we have to protect Europe is because they’re cutting their defense budgets to deal with the deficit.”
Yet, the most serious recent threat to our national security was found not in the Kremlin, or in Beijing or in Pyongyang or in Tehran. It came from a terrorist who lived in a million-dollar compound in Pakistan. A U.S. Navy Seals bullet to the head ended Osama bin Laden’s journey but the al Qaeda movement survives and it remains among our greatest national security challenges.
“Failed states and states that harbor the development of terrorist groups are a danger to this country,” Papp said. “There aren’t too many out there so the question is, how do you deal with the few that are out there? The much more dangerous threat from my perspective is a small group that gets some type of WMD (weapon of mass destruction).
“You don’t deal with them aircraft carrier battle groups. You deal with them, as this country has been doing pretty well for the past ten years, with sophisticated and steadily improving intelligence capabilities. That’s what we’ve got to do. That’s where we’ve got to put the emphasis.”
Think about these numbers and how they are moving in the wrong direction: Eleven years ago the United States accounted for one-third of the world’s annual military expense and Americans produced one-third of the world’s gross domestic product. Today the U.S. spends 46 percent of worldwide military expenditures and our GDP is about one-quarter of world GDP. NATO allies spend another 21 percent of the world’s defense budget; China spends 6.6-to-8 percent and Russia 3.5-to-5 percent.
“If you look around, we are spending as much as the rest of the world combined,” said Korb, who used “conned” and “shell game” to describe Pentagon budgets. Notably, the baseline budget was in the $280 billion vicinity before 9/11. “War on terror is a stupid phrase because who’s your enemy?” Korb said. “Terror is a tactic. You can’t go to war against a tactic.”
Korb and Papp were joined by Robert Kennedy, former foreign affairs officer with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, professor at the U.S. Army War College and civilian deputy commandant of the NATO Defense College in Rome, Italy. Kennedy has been a professor at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs since 1989.
“When you look at what you should spend on defense you must size that against the nature of the threat,” Kennedy said. He noted the baseline and supplemental appropriation military budgets are more than ten times the size of the State Department’s entire budget, adding that even a modest increase to diplomacy “would really improve our situation globally and we won’t need those extraordinary heavy forces that are unlikely to see combat in the future.”
There are many opinions about how much the United States should spend on defense, especially now during fiscal chaos. Incidentally, your share is about $2,250. Thought you would want to know.
About the World Affairs Council of Atlanta
The mission of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta is to provide a forum for dialogue, a source of expertise, and an engine for research on international affairs and global issues that impact the corporate community, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and the general public. The Council recently hosted NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The WCA is housed at Georgia State University. Click here for additional information.
Lawrence Korb Biography link
Robert Kennedy Biography link
Daniel Papp Biography link
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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