Unfortunately for us all there is another Republican primary debate tonight. As discussed here previously, the candidates’ defense policy pronouncements—such as they are—have left much to be desired. They invariably rely on trite banalities about resolve and strength. And when plans are presented they consistently call to increase the size of the military with no connection to fiscal reality.
In a post at The National Interest’s “Skeptics” blog, Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute presents a series of questions about the candidates’ positions on defense that would make tonight’s debate much more informative were they to be asked. His first few questions in particular would be worth asking:
1) For starters, do you believe that U.S. military spending is too high, too low or about right? Polls suggest that Americans are evenly divided on this question. If you believe the United States spends too much, what is the right amount? If you believe we spend too little, how much more would you spend?
1a) For those who answered “more” to the above question, how would you pay for the additional military spending to ensure that it didn’t merely add to the nation’s already enormous debt? Please be specific. Would you eliminate non-defense domestic programs, or reduce entitlement benefits, or increase taxes?
1b) Why would you spend more? What is the United States unable to do right now to preserve its security because it isn’t spending enough? To what extent is insufficient military strength the critical factor explaining America’s inability to achieve satisfactory results with respect to an array of challenges, from destroying ISIS, to repairing failed states, to halting North Korea’s nuclear program? Do you believe that higher military spending would have deterred Russia from annexing Crimea in 2014? Would higher spending in 2008—which happened to be the highest since World War II—have stopped Russian aggression against Georgia? Or, at some point, is “more” meaningless?
2) In 1989, at the end of the Cold War, Pentagon spending totaled $291 billion, or $556 billion today when adjusted for inflation. The total number of active duty personnel at the time was 2.2 million. By contrast, Pentagon spending in 2015 totaled $578 billion, and the active duty force totals 1.4 million (All figures from the DoD Green Book, .pdf here). That means that, on average, the United States spends $416,000 per active-duty member of the military today, while we spent $252,000 in 1989—again, in inflation-adjusted (2016) dollars. What do you believe are the primary factors driving up the military’s costs, and what, if anything, would you do to address this cost growth?
Unfortunately, it is unlikely any of these questions will be asked at any point in the campaign. More importantly, even if they were asked, they are even less likely to be answered in a satisfactory way.
There are a number of reasons the cost of defense has increasingly spiraled upwards since the end of the Cold War. Besides the wide array of security commitments the United States has maintained or added since the collapse of the Soviet Union, increased personnel costs, congressional parochialism, sclerotic bureaucracy, an antiquated planning system, and procurement plans that obliterate economies of scale in weapons acquisition have all contributed to the 65 percent increase in spending per active-duty service member since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Explaining how to tackle these problems requires a level of nuance most candidates either do not possess or actively eschew.
It is easier to simply call for more money and claim that such increases are a sign of strength. There will be no explanation of how a military build-up will be paid for because it is ideologically unpalatable for Republicans to argue in favor of raising taxes and political impossible for any candidate to call for cuts in entitlement programs. Moreover, there will be no discussion of whether the added debt that will inevitably result will actually improve the military, or simply produce a larger version of the current Cold War “legacy force”—papering over the endemic bureaucratic dysfunction at the Department of Defense in the process.
The political party that prides itself on being “serious” about national defense should be eager to answer to Preble’s questions. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that any of its candidates ever will.