Defense v. Entitlements

Maintaining and modernizing our armed forces doesn’t just protect America, it fulfills the Constitution’s mandate to “provide for the common defense.” Yet the defense budget appears to be one place where President Barack Obama and Congress are looking to offset massive new spending elsewhere — “stimulating” or otherwise.

“The Pentagon faces a $100 billion annual shortfall in its procurement and modernization accounts,” warns Kim Holmes, Heritage’s vice president for defense and foreign policy studies. “The question facing Mr. Obama is not whether to trim a few expensive and unnecessary weapons systems, but whether he is willing to forgo America’s military edge by skipping or delaying construction of the next generation of modern weapons.”

Specially trained troops, updated equipment and “smart” weaponry to counter tomorrow’s threats are both necessary and a relative bargain for taxpayers, their children and grandchildren, Heritage analysts conclude. The crushing burden comes from the rapidly escalating cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

As a percentage of the economy, a downloadable chart from Heritage shows, the government is spending more than twice as much for the three major entitlement programs as for the military — even before 77 million baby boomers retire in great numbers. In coming decades, the cost of entitlements will leap from 8.5 percent to 18.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Without reform, our well-intentioned promises will require raising taxes by the equivalent of $12,072 per household or eliminating every other program — including defense, transportation, housing and education.

“Spiraling manpower costs and modernization demands are growing at an unprecedented rate, with many ships, planes and tanks older than their crews,” Heritage national security expert James Carafano writes. “Detroit got into trouble because of bad businesses practices. The armed forces are in trouble because Washington under-funded the military in the 1990s and shrunk it too much to cope with the threats of the post-Cold War world.”

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) recently predicted a new round of defense cuts. Others in Congress believe that keeping our military edge, as Heritage’s Baker Spring and Mackenzie Eaglen outline in a new paper, requires spending the equivalent of at least 4 percent of GDP on defense for five years or more. They seek to put that commitment into law.

“The recession may make meeting a 4 percent commitment politically more difficult,” Holmes notes, “but only because we have not yet had an honest debate about where most government spending has been going.”