Don’t call for more defense spending based on past practices

After Russia’s dastardly attack on Ukraine, and with China’s growing military power and global aspirations, many Democrats and Republicans in Congress are calling for greater US defense spending. This response is understandable and very likely to lead to larger defense budgets. Some argue that spending should reflect the years when defense accounted for 10 percent or more of GDP rather than the current nearly 4 percent.

But there are two problems with these arguments for increased military funding. The first is that federal spending habits have changed dramatically. While defense may be getting higher levels of funding in real terms, other competitors are gaining larger budget shares. Consider federal budget spending percentages over 60 years in then-year dollars.

In 1962, the federal budget was $106.8 billion; the deficit, $7 billion. Defense spending was $55.9 billion, 52 percent of the budget and 9.3 percent of GDP. Over subsequent years, mandatory spending for pensions, health care and other social programs soared.

Thirty years later, in 1992, the budget was $1.38 trillion and the deficit $290 billion. Defense was $348.5 billion, 24 percent of the budget and 4.97 percent of GDP. In 2022, the budget was $5,851.6, the deficit $1.48 trillion. Defense was $782.0 billion, 14 percent of the budget and 3.8 percent of GDP. And in 2019 dollars, for the past 20 years the highest defense spending was $867.2 billion in 2010.

Obviously, social and health care programs in non-discretionary (mandatory) spending have swelled. As a result, while defense spending has increased, it takes up a smaller share of the budget and GDP. Hence, arguments to return to earlier and higher GDP and budget shares ignores the reality of how federal spending is allocated. And to exacerbate these budget realities, with a $30 trillion national debt, interest rates should rise to 3 or 5 percent, that would add a $0.9 to $1.5 trillion expense to cover interest payments, wreaking havoc on other spending categories.

Common sense leads to the conclusion that as national security threats increase, more defense spending is needed. But common sense does not account for two determinant factors. The first is that as US defense spending has increased over the past decade, the size of the force has decreased. The second is the assumption that more spending assumes an effective and relevant strategy to set the direction and priorities to make best use of the added funds.

Because of uncontrolled annual real cost growth of all defense items from precision weapons to people to pencils, 5-7 percent additional spending is needed to stay even year over year. With inflation at 8 percent, that means annual defense spending increases of about 13-15 percent, or some $100 billion, would sustain the current force in numbers, modernization and readiness for war. That level increase, short of a major war, is simply unachievable.

As serious is strategy. The current national security strategy (a revision is due out shortly) had its foundations in the Obama administration. Its objectives are to contain, deter and, if war comes, defeat a series of adversaries topped by China as the “pacing threat” and Russia followed by North Korea and Iran. But no administration defined in precise terms what “contain, deter and defeat” meant and whether the aims were achievable and affordable.

Ukraine has definitely exposed the strategy’s “contain and deter” weaknesses. And China has not been contained or deterred in its expansion, militarization of islets in the China seas or in expanding influence through its Belt and Road Initiative and “wolf warrior” aggressive diplomacy. Further, it is difficult to contemplate how two nuclear powers, one with a population of 1.5 billion, could be defeated in war.

I have argued that a greater threat, called Massive Attacks of Disruption (MAD) that encompasses Russia and China, must be the new basis for assuring national security and the safety and prosperity of the nation. That strategy would be predicated on containing, preventing, defending and where appropriate engaging this MAD. And unlike the Cold War MAD of Mutual Assured Destruction in which deterrence prevented nuclear war, the new MAD is not as easily deterred, especially from attacks caused by nature.

The key proposal is for a “Porcupine Defense” in which overwhelming numbers of relatively inexpensive weapons and disruptive systems would impose unacceptable costs on any attacking force. The Ukraine military has already shown proof of concept. Suppose Ukraine started the war with 1,000 armed drones; 15,000 Stingers, Javelins and other anti-air and anti-armor systems along with more capability to execute a decapitation plan to eliminate much more of Russia’s senior leadership.

But will the US be creative, imaginative and courageous enough to break the old mold of past thinking? On that, America’s future security will rest.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, DC’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”

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