When the Cold War ended in 1990, President George H.W. Bush talked about the expected “peace dividend,” a reduction in military spending. Although the United States is now engaged in two wars, President Obama and Congress should look again to the military budget for cuts in federal spending.
A recent congressional skirmish over adding seven F-22 fighter jets to a defense appropriation bill illustrates the dilemma in cutting such spending.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued against adding the seven jets. But the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to add the seven planes at a cost of $1.75 billion. Sen. Susan Collins, who serves on the committee, voted in favor of buying the additional aircraft, noting that Air Force officials say they are needed. She and Sen. Olympia Snowe, in a letter to the president, noted the Pratt & Whitney plant in North Berwick could be hurt if the aircraft request were cut. The jet is powered by engines made in the plant.
And those are the horns of the dilemma — saving federal tax dollars or bringing federal spending to Maine. Secretary Gates said the 187 F-22s now on hand are “sufficient,” and dismissed the far-fetched scenarios of some who wanted to buy more F-22s, such as using them “to go after Somali pi-rates who in many cases are teenagers with AK-47s — a job we already know is better done at much less cost by three Navy SEALs.”
The F-22 costs “$350 million each, when calculated in inflation-adjusted dollars and counting 20 years of development,” Bloomberg reported.
The political element of reining-in defense spending cannot be overstated. Cutting defense spending leaves elected officials open to political attacks.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Republicans blamed the Clinton administration for gutting the military. Active-duty military under President Clinton dropped from 1.8 million in 1993 to 1.4 million in 2000. The U.S. Navy fleet also shrank, from 454 ships in 1993 to 341 in 2000. But during the elder Bush’s administration, he and Congress oversaw a cut in active duty personnel from 2.2 million to 1.8 million and a reduction in total defense forces, from 3.3 million to 2.9 million.
Maine felt the pain of defense cuts, with bases in Limestone and Brunswick closing in the post-Cold War period. Tom Andrews, Maine’s 1st District representative during the base closing initiative, supported closing the Limestone base. It would be hypocritical, he argued, to support defense cuts in other states while opposing them at home. That stance may have cost him the Senate race against Olympia Snowe in 1994.
The economic argument is often made in support of defense spending, but when compared with dollar-for-dollar with spending on education, social services and health care, military procurement does not produce as many jobs. The U.S. defense budget in 2007 was $600 billion, more than all other nations combined
The top priority of every administration is to keep Americans safe. But defense spending must not be a sacred cow as the federal government works to retire its debts over the next several years. Congress and the president must make the best use of limited tax money.