One for the cutters

The Pentagon’s new budget proposal trims some pointless programs, but doesn’t go far enough

ThereâÄôs been a pesky rumor going around: that the Obama administration is trying to cut defense spending. TV talking heads have bought it; congressmen have too. There are two problems here, though. One: It isnâÄôt true. Two: It should be. One week ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates released his proposed 2010 budget for the Pentagon. It clocked in at $534 billion. The last Bush-era defense budget was $513 billion. IâÄôve checked and re-checked my math (due diligence and all), and I can say to you with absolute certainty: 534 is bigger than 513. So if you hear anyone spouting nonsense about how Obama wants to slash our defense spending and cripple our military, youâÄôll know theyâÄôre either (a) uninformed, (b) lying or (c) both. Generally rumors like this have some small glimmer of truth, and in this case there are two little bits. Neither of them counts as real criticism, though. I apologize in advance, because this paragraph is going to turn into a brief avalanche of numbers. Bit of truth No. 1: Just before the end of the Bush presidency, the outgoing administration submitted a proposed defense budget of $60 billion more than the previous yearâÄôs. The Congressional Budget Office took one look at it and said, no dice. The CBO set a cap of $527 billion. (This number does not include spending on the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, by the way.) People saying that Obama and Gates are cutting defense spending are probably using the comically inflated Bush number as their baseline. Obviously, this makes no sense. Bit of truth No. 2: Gates has indeed proposed to cut all kinds of different weapons programs. ThatâÄôs different, though, than âÄúcutting defense.âÄù A more honest phrasing would be something along the lines of âÄúdefense reorganization.âÄù And there are some pretty big-ticket items on the chopping block. The F-22 fighter is cooked, for example. ItâÄôs a pretty cool plane that just so happens to be fairly useless in the kinds of wars weâÄôre going to be fighting: An F-22 has never been used in either the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts . There has been a big push from lobbyists (and the lawmakers who love them) to save the F-22, and weâÄôll see if Congress has the guts to approve GatesâÄô killing of the program. Some have argued that ending production of the plane will cost us jobs; strangely enough, the type of person generally making this argument has a strong tendency to decry creeping socialism and big government. Nevertheless, weâÄôre not just giving up on building airplanes: Another part of the proposed budget involves building a bunch of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters that will also employ a bunch of people. The new budget axes the ArmyâÄôs âÄúFuture Combat SystemsâÄù as well. The FCS was, to simplify things slightly, an attempt to package a bunch of individual vehicles we donâÄôt need into one giant program that we really, really donâÄôt need. The FCSâÄôs budget over-runs were legendary; none of the technology worked right; nothing but a few robots and unmanned drones will ever make it into combat. It did have a pretty sweet name though. But, again, the Gates budget does not just stop buying vehicles: Instead, it calls for the purchase of a bunch of things that actually, you know, work. Sensing a theme here? Cutting programs is not the same thing as cutting the budget. Mostly, money is being re-arranged, with more cash going to counterinsurgency and small-war sections of the Pentagon. But all of the fighting and misinformation about the budget-cut-that-wasnâÄôt is distracting us from a more important point: We should be cutting defense spending. WeâÄôre not, but we ought to. We outspend every other country on the planet to a laughable degree. Take Russia , for example: They just announced a massive, 25 percent hike in defense spending, all the way up to âĦ $50 billion. They might even get up to $58 billion by 2011. WeâÄôre spending more than $500 billion, plus the Iraq costs, plus the Afghanistan costs. We could cut our spending in half and still dominate in defense money: China spends somewhere between $100 billion to $150 billion. We have a tendency in this country to think about defense spending in a bubble, without remembering that itâÄôs real money. The basic budgeting process encourages that, to some extent âÄî the president proposes his basic budget, and the PentagonâÄôs comes along separately. But money we waste on a plane we donâÄôt need could be better spent elsewhere âÄî aid to cash-strapped state governments, a new health care system, whatever. Clearly, now is not really the time to be fretting over much about the federal deficit âÄî weâÄôre dealing with strange economic times that demand large amounts of spending. But buying a bunch of F-22s or pouring research money into tanks that donâÄôt work isnâÄôt much better than the apocryphal Keynes quip about burying money and paying people to dig it back up. We can find better uses for that cash. There is still hope that this new budget is just the first step on the way to true spending cuts. Coming up next is something called the Quadrennial Defense Review, which is exactly what it sounds like: a big review that informs future budget choices. There are already rumblings about how Gates and his team can use the QDR to trim some serious military fat, especially in places where the different military branches overlap. But we need to do more than hope âÄî we need to demand. Money is tight enough already, and wasting it on pointless defense spending is something we can most definitely do without. John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]