With Congress again grappling with defense sequestration, some lawmakers may need to remind themselves why the military budget exists in the first place.
Defense spending should be calculated by looking at the threats the country faces, then identifying what kind of military is needed to deal with those threats.
One threat is China, an important trade partner but also a military rival intent on dominating the Western Pacific and America’s Asian allies. It intends to evict the United States from the Western Pacific.
Another threat is Russia. Vladimir Putin hopes to rebuild as much of the old Soviet Union as possible. The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance — the United States and most of Europe — stands in his way. Putin has begun to test NATO’s resolve to defend the Baltic States.
And the Middle East remains a pit of vipers, Iran and the Islamic State being the nastiest snakes.
History teaches a consistent lesson: Military readiness is expensive, but war is infinitely more costly. Millions of lives might have been saved in the last century had the rulers of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and North Korea seen a formidable, ready-to-deploy American military and drawn the logical conclusions.
The existence of major threats doesn’t dictate sky’s-the-limit defense spending. Congress could trim the budget by closing bases, judiciously cancelling weapon systems and cutting other programs designed for the last century’s challenges. It might reconsider decades-old Pentagon orthodoxies — the need for nuclear bombers, for example.
A 21st-century defense ultimately requires that lawmakers make those hard decisions.
That kind of restructuring won’t happen overnight. The immediate concern is maintaining the preparedness of the current armed forces — which will be all but impossible if the defense budget remains in the vise of sequestration.
Sequestration — the result of a 2011 budget impasse between Republicans and Democrats — was supposed to be so bad no one would let it happen. It happened nevertheless, imposing draconian, arbitrary spending caps on social and defense spending.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan kept the meat ax away from the military two years ago with a short-term bipartisan deal. But that stopgap is expiring, and the armed forces now face deep cuts in funding for combat training — which is more important than high-tech weapons systems.
Some Democrats want to use sequestration’s defense cap as a tool to leverage more spending on domestic programs. Some Republican budget hawks have made their peace with sequestration: They’re OK with restricting defense spending if that’s what it takes to keep domestic spending down.
The House recently produced a terrible “solution.” Rather than attack sequestration itself, lawmakers voted to feed $38 billion to the Pentagon through a temporary account for overseas military operations. The military cannot do long-term planning with money in that short-term fund.
The real solution is for more lawmakers to recognize that military preparedness shouldn’t be left to partisan games or accounting gimmicks. The United States has failed to match defense spending to actual threats in the past; it has regretted it.