Deflating a Bloated Pentagon

Trying to make a comprehensive list of desirable cuts in military spending is beyond the scope of this blog and would probably make for tedious reading; therefore, this blog will focus on a few big ticket items and will present a way of downsizing through a military force structure model.

Military aviation experts are in general agreement that if the United States had not started developing new jet fighters in the early 2000s it would have had a distinct global aerial superiority until at least 2020. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most sophisticated jet fighter ever built and is designed to serve both the Air Force and the Navy. Jet fighters built to serve more than one of the military services have never worked well in the past.

The present plan is to build an air wing of 2,400 F-35s, with an overall cost of about 1.5 trillion dollars. This cost figure may be a case of lowballing, as in just the first eight years off the drawing board, the cost of a single F-35 has increased by 80 percent. Last year the Pentagon estimated that maintenance costs alone for the F-35 would run to $1 trillion in the next 30 years. The magnitude of a trillion dollars can be dramatized in the following way: if 100 dollar bills were laid end-to-end, they would circle the earth at the equator 59 times. Reducing that air wing by 2/3s would save a trillion dollars by the Pentagon’s current cost estimate. Based on the lack of a peer enemy military force, even 800 F-35s would be a case of vast overkill capability.

The United States has 11 aircraft carriers and no other nation has more than one. A decade ago the cost of a single aircraft carrier was approaching $6 billion and the protection of such a costly investment requires a whole flotilla of ships and an aerial umbrella of warplanes.

The proposal, then, would be to stop building carriers and allot one carrier to the Pacific Ocean, one to the Atlantic Ocean and one to the troubled Middle East. One carrier would be kept in reserve and the other seven mothballed.

President Obama could have taken a big step to earning his Nobel peace prize by proposing at the beginning off his presidency that if given two terms he would close all U.S. military bases on foreign soil, based on priorities worked out with Congress and the military services. Since the missions would no longer be needed, the armed forces would be reduced in personnel by the number of troops brought home and those whose principal job was to supply them. Personnel costs is the largest single item in the Pentagon’s budget.

A political calculation in this bold policy is that it will be easier to close foreign bases than it will to close bases within the United States.

It should be noted that the recommendation to phase out all overseas military bases echoes a recommendation made by the Boston Study Group, a team of defense analysts noted for their wide-ranging analysis of U.S. military spending. Furthermore, the recommendation to mothball seven carrier groups mirrors a seven-carrier cut proposed about two decades ago by defense analysts consulting Scientific American magazine. Forbes magazine also weighed in with a proposed military force structure for the early 1990s, costing about $100 billion less than the contemporary Pentagon spending figures. The 1990s was a time of proposing deep cuts in the military infrastructure.

The linchpin for reducing the size of the armed forces would be to adopt the type of model published in 1992 by defense analyst Randall Forsberg, laying out the minimal force structure needed to protect the nation and phasing it in over a ten-year period. If the Forsberg model — costed out at $86 billion ( she had another model, costing $79 billion) — had been adopted when presented, it would have cut the FY 2003 military budget by about 75 percent, thus probably making it unfeasible to launch the very costly war in Iraq, or to fight a long war in Afghanistan. 

Those who want to reduce the role of the military in U.S. life usually concentrate on the spending of  a bloated Pentagon and the more beneficial societal uses that could be funded with the savings. There are, however, a number of very destructive effects caused by a large standing military: 1) Military spending tends to be inflationary, because it doesn’t make things that consumers can buy or are socially useful; 2) The military is a voracious consumer of resources, particularly oil, aluminum, copper, nickel and platinum; 3) The military employs an inordinate number of the nation’s oceanographers, physicists, and engineers — aeronautical, astronautical, electrical and electronic; 4) The military is the biggest single-source pollutor in the world; and 5) Military spending is a very poor job creator.

Overall, the Council for Economic Priorities has found that the more a country spends on the military as a part of its economy, the slower the rate of economic growth, the higher the rate of unemployment and the slower the productivity growth.

President Obama has not taken any visible action to cut down on the large army of contractors that serve the Pentagon. The Pentagon says it employs 766,000 contractors at an annual cost of $155 billion. The Washington Post says that when you add in private intelligence organizations, the total comes to 1.2 million contractors.

The Pentagon’s invisible army consists of 70,000 cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries. This privatization has produced convoluted chains of foreign subcontracts that often lead to cost overruns and fraud. A researcher named Sarah Stillman has interviewed hundreds of T.C.N.s (third country nationals) and has seldom met one who had paid less than a thousand dollars for his/her job.

When I was in the U.S.Army during the Korean War, Army cooks prepared the meals, soldiers pulled KP (messhall duties),  soldiers carried out guard duty on a scheduled basis, and troops were transported by Army drivers. If we were to go back to this in-house taking care of business, we could largely eliminate this large army of highly-paid contractors. 

Even though the  military protects people and not GDP, it is worth looking at one treatment of the relationship of military spending to GDP by the team of Pollin and Garrett-Peltier.* The team notes that in Bush IIs last year in office, military spending was 4.3 percent of GDP, whereas in Clinton’s last year in office, military spending was 3 percent of GDP.The conclusion is that if we were to return to the 2000 level of military spending as a share of  the economy, that would itself entail budget cuts of $260 billion per year (i.e., $1.4 trillion over four years).**

Another way of looking at military spending is to mark its percentage of discretionary spending — the War Resisters League and the National Priorities Project, Inc. are among the groups that have done this. Discretionary spending is that which the Congress actually votes on. Trust fund spending and interest on the debt are excluded. The National Priorities Project, Inc. pie chart for 2011 shows military spending at 58 percent of the total and education and health at four and five percent respectively.

The next blog will deal with the nuclear weapons component of military spending.

*Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier, The Nation, May 28, 2012.



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