The Defense Budget

How much can we cut?

In addition to the points that Megan makes, a lot of the Pentagon budget is wasteful, for the same reason that a lot of NASA’s is — because the lawmakers on the committees overseeing it like it that way. But the other problem is that we can’t always predict what we’ll need, and in that sense, defense spending is like advertising — only half of it is effective, but no one knows which half.

51 thoughts on “The Defense Budget”

  1. There certainly are areas and systems that can be cut. The question becomes will either the D’s or R’s consider paring back an interloping foreign policy by the state department, which has made the Defense Department the War Department every since Clinton declared a peace dividend.

  2. Since the USA can no longer afford guns and butter, Obama is obviously favoring the latter. He must be careful, though. The only thing that allows the USA to lavishly borrow so much of the world’s wealth is financial hegemony, which is naturally backed-up by the military kind.

    1. Thales.

      You do know that only about $5 trillion of the National Debt is owned by foreigners? And they are investing in it not because of any fear of the military but because its safer than the debt of most other governments even with Congress’ occasional fits of stupidity.

      But in this area Rep. Ron Paul is correct, we have far too many foreign bases and have been allowing too many foreign countries a free ride by providing security for them. We need to stop being the world cop and focus more narrowly on our national interests.

      1. We need enough bases in enough places that moving our forces near trouble spots is not a problem. We could close the rest down. We certainly don’t need any troops in Korea.

        1. “We certainly don’t need any troops in Korea.”


          the purpose of those troops are as “trigger troops”…if Americans are shot at, we have the justification for sending more.

          And the North Koreans know it.

          Remove the troops and the NoKo’s might think we would no longer send more in case of invasion.

          I’m not saying you are wrong, but you have to take that into consideration:

          Is it your foreign policy that you would send troops to South Korea in case of NK invasion?

          If it is, you might want to keep them there.

          If not, by all means remove them.

          What will you do with the numerous squadrons we have over there?

          1. I know they are trigger troops. We shouldn’t have them there. Let S. Korea be the first line of defense. Let them work out their differences with Japan for joint defense. They are in much better shape to do so than any European nation which we should also work to cut off by getting them to stand up.

  3. The military is sized to accomplish goals and objectives of the US government. How much you spend on the military is largely dependent on what you (the government) want it to be able to do. Whether those objectives are still valid is a reasonable subject for debate.

    We can argue that the defense of Europe is their responsibility and cut our budget significantly. Since we get little of our oil from the Middle East, we can argue that those countries that depend on oil from there should pay for the military forces needed for that region. The same goes for Japan and Korea. Due in no small part to US defense spending since the end of WWII, those other countries have been able to keep their military spending low at our expense.

    It really comes down to this: if those countries don’t think there is a viable military threat, when why should we spend billions defending them? And if they do think there’s a threat, why is it our responsibility to protect them? Let them protect themselves.

    Stepping back from Europe and Asia would require countries like Germany and Japan to increase their military spending, something that makes a lot of people get worried. How long should their WWII history be held against them?

    1. Larry J

      I agree. It is long past time to decide on what the objectives of national security should be in the 21st Century and then restructure the military to meet them.

      I also agree its far past time to be protecting countries like Japan and Germany, not to mention South Korea and Taiwan that could afford to defend themselves.

      1. Yeah, that’s all nice in theory. But, the reality is that, before the Pax Americana, the world experienced periodic and increasingly devastating upheavals, and it is quite possible, even likely, it would again.

        Nature abhors a vacuum. Something would rush in to fill the gap when we exit. Can we afford to be complacent that, that something will be benign?

        1. Bart,

          But it wouldn’t be a vacuum. Its more like reducing the pressure from 25 atmospheres to 3-4 atmospheres with the U.S. still having the largest navy and most advanced army and air force.

  4. But the other problem is that we can’t always predict what we’ll need, and in that sense, defense spending is like advertising — only half of it is effective, but no one knows which half.

    As Niels Bohr and Yogi Bera both stated, “Predictions are difficult, especially about the future.”

    One of the persistent problems with military procurement is “preparing to fight the last war.” People think the next war (and there’s always a next war) will be like the last one but that’s seldom the case. I remember reading some pundits back in 1990 after light infantry managed to topple Panama that heavy armor units were obsolete and should be disbanded. A few months later, Saddam invaded Kuwait and heavy armor units proved quite handy. It’s a good thing no one took those pundits seriously. If we think the next war will only be an asymetric conflict against insurgents with little to no anti-aircraft capability, then we can build a military to meet that threat. However, should the next enemy refuse to cooperate with those limitations, our options will be quite limited.

    1. Exactly. I often see the idiotic notion coming from anti-military leftists and supposedly right wing pro-military folks as well that since we never use F-22’s in Iraq/Afghanistan then we obviously do not need F-22’s, ever.

  5. Withdrawing from Afghanistan would probably help. The place is a logistical nightmare. What will happen next depends on what the US citizens and government want to do.

    Prior to WWII the US usually did not keep a large standing army around in peace time. This was sometimes perceived as problematic once you needed to put the country on a war footing. However the US is a continent away from any potential adversaries so there was always the time to ramp up the industry to produce new weapons when the situation arose. When there was an industry. Given enough industrial power, man power, and time winning a war is almost assured.

    The question is does the US want to be a superpower with all the associated costs inherent to it or only be a regional power. There seems to be an agreement on both sides of the US political spectrum to keep the US on superpower status. I remember reading some defense papers back when Clinton was President which suggested closing down more facilities abroad in favor of global range weapons launched from the US. However this strategy seems to have been abandoned since the PNAC paper which wanted US expeditionary forces capable of fighting two simultaneous wars namely in Iraq and North Korea and 9/11.

    The current US strategy seems to be to move US forces to the Pacific treater as a check on China. In my opinion the US has two strategic areas of interest right now. The Americas and the Pacific. The Arab revolutions are another problem but one which is not necessarily a strategic concern for the US.

    I could detail the situation in the Americas right now but I’ll probably just skip to the Chinese situation. If the US wants to intervene there several things are needed:

    – nuclear deterrent
    – missile defense
    – carrier fleets
    – modern submarine force
    – shallow draft gunboats
    – amphibious fighting vehicles

    I was sort of surprised the Marines did not get their EFV. I think it was a real mistake in US defense procurement since such a vehicle is essential in a war in the Pacific.

    Regarding things which could be cut include the GCV Infantry Fighting Vehicle since it makes no sense at the moment. The V-22 Osprey and the F-35B should probably be reevaluated versus a mix of modern helicopters and drones.

    1. Godzilla,

      Exactly, just how much of a foreign presence is needed to remain a super power? According to this article the U.S currently has troops at over 900 bases in over 130 nations. Seems to me you should be able to get rid of a fair number of those installations without reducing our status as a super power.

      Seems a lot on money could be saved and some of it could be used to produce even more advance technology weapon systems which is what has always given the U.S. military its edge.

      1. Actually, if you read the article you linked to, it says no such thing. For example, on the claim of troops in over 130 countries, it says:

        We tallied up all the countries with at least one member of the U.S. military, excluding those with personnel deemed to be “afloat.” We found U.S. military personnel on the ground in a whopping 148 countries — even more than Paul had said. (There are varying standards for what constitutes a “country,” so that may explain the divergence from Paul’s number.)

        However, we should add a caveat. In 56 of these 148 countries, the U.S. has less than 10 active-duty personnel present. These include such obscure locales as Mongolia, Nepal, Gabon, Togo and Suriname.

        By contrast, the U.S. has disclosed only 13 countries outside the United States and its possessions that are host to more than 1,000 personnel. They are: Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Japan, Bahrain, Djibouti, South Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

        It does a similar examination of the claim of 900 bases and finds it also is inaccurate. It found 648 “bases” ranging from a single 144 square foot room in Canada up to full air bases like Ramstein in Germany.

        I agree that we can cut down on our foreign commitments but we need to use accurate information to make the necessary determinations.

        1. Larry J

          And to determine just want we do need beyond the U.S.

          For example, do we still need bases in Okinawa that take up 18 percent of the island or would moving those forces to Guam or other Pacific bases achieve an acceptable level of security?

          1. That’s a good question. I don’t know if there’s enough available space on Guam to house the forces currently in Okinawa. My one trip to Guan was in 1998 and the place wasn’t very big. Okinawa is home to Marines. Marines need room to train. From Wikipedia, Okinawa has over twice the area of Guam. A lot of Guam is already in use.

          2. That would unquestionably cause Guam to tip over as a prominent representative of the democrat Party postulated.

  6. “If we think the next war will only be an asymetric conflict against insurgents with little to no anti-aircraft capability, then we can build a military to meet that threat. However, should the next enemy refuse to cooperate with those limitations, our options will be quite limited.”

    In fact it can often become a self fulfilling prophecy – if the decision is that the next few wars will be low intensity, asymmetrical types, and we downsize to handle only that …some cagey Big Battalion power will take advantage and clobber us. Or at least throw their weight around and exert influence.

    Having serious responsibility for the defense of Yerp (Europe) has pros and cons from our perspective. It gives us a lot of influence in the region. That’s a good thing. It allows Yerpeen nations to spend fewer drachmas on defense and have more for economic competition..that’s a bad thing.

    So it’s not something to be done impulsively.

    1. One thing I quietly hoped from the Obama administration is a lessening of US involvement in the defense of Europe and AsiaPac. Seems that only matters when it comes to missile defense. Otherwise, he’ll go to war with an African nation to keep oil flowing to Europe. However, he did manage to get China to leave its west coast and project power to Somalia for pirate interdiction. I guess that’s a win.

      1. Are you talking about Libya? I doubt some drones and aerial bombardments from already existing NATO bases in Italy cost that much. Not that I was in favor of the war or deposing Gaddafi but I doubt it was that expensive.

  7. I think a little less, “build me a rock”, and a lot more “I’ll buy that” would save tons of money. But that would take people understanding the problems of our procurement regulations, which are designed to benefit lobbyist.

    1. The procurement regulations are primarily in place to benefit the bureaucrats and the political rent-seekers. Two years ago, I attended a briefing by a general in Air Force Space Command. He showed a slide with the full JCIDS process on it and said, “I couldn’t get a paperclip through this process in less than two years.” The system is designed to make things as slow and combersome as possible, and every year or so, they add more complexity to it.

      1. Have you seen the video showing how the process changed through the, um, generations? It has Star Wars music as background. Just about the time the paperclip would get to the 2 years, the process would change and bam, a new change order to jack up the price.

          1. Here is a sped up version. It’s a little over a minute. Same material, but when I saw it, it lasted a very long time. Still, you can see the changes, and if you know the stages, you can see how the subtle changes have major cost implications.

      2. Larry J,

        You are right on target.

        And its that way with all procurement, including NASA. Some years ago I was involved with a commercial lunar venture and discussing with one of the majors how much a simple robotic lander would cost. I was shocked at the low price and short delivery date quoted. I then asked why the NASA landers were so expensive. The engineered related that if they built it for us they would be in complete control of the design once we agreed on the performance specs and we couldn’t change them. Also the instrumentation would be truly off the shelf.

        By contrast when NASA wants a lander they also want to design it and then redesign it every time some engineer gets an idea of how to improve it. Even worst the scientists want “state of the art” instrumentation which means expensive R&D to design it and also means that every time they make a design change it ripples through the entire design for the spacecraft. And then add to it that everything must be documented for approval and then the approval documented, reviewed and analyzed before being documented and reviewed for final approval… Well you get the idea.

        As a side note its interesting to note that two of the best aircraft to come out of WWII, the P-51 and P-80 went from contract to first flight in only a few months. Both were done under “emergency” conditions and the procurement process was basically tossed out the window… And without computers to aid the design. Lessons to learn perhaps?

        1. The lessons of the P-51 and P-80 don’t scale very well in today’s fighters. Sure, both of those planes went from contract signing to first flight in less than 150 days. Even by the standards of that era, that was astonishing. Both planes still took almost two years before they entered squadron service. However, when you look at modern fighters, you’ll find they are orders of magnitude more complicated than the Mustang and Shooting Star and most of that is due to the avionics. A big driver of that is software and that still takes a long time to develop and test. DARPA is working on ways to significantly shorten software development time. Perhaps that will work, but DARPA has a very high failure rate on their projects.

          Kelly Johnson proved himself not only a legendary aircraft engineer but a great program manager. He did the XP-80 in something like 143 days, the U-2 in less than 10 months and the A-12 Oxcart (single seat predecessor to the Blackbird) in about 3 years. The fact that 18 years separated the first flights of the XP-80 and the A-18 is also amazing. Johnson did those engineering miracles by controlling bureaucracy and by accepting more risk in flight test. They lost some planes and some pilots in the process but that was a tradeoff they were willing to make at the time. It’s a lot harder to get away with that in today’s risk-adverse society.

        2. “As a side note its interesting to note that two of the best aircraft to come out of WWII, the P-51 and P-80 went from contract to first flight in only a few months. Both were done under “emergency” conditions and the procurement process was basically tossed out the window… And without computers to aid the design. Lessons to learn perhaps?”

          The lesson to learn is that you should be sure of your history before you attempt to use it. But history (remember your Quasi-War idiocy?) is not your strong point.

          There was no “emergency” condition for the P-51. The Brits wanted North American to make P-40’s but NA knew they could do better. They said they would have a new design in the same time to tool up for the P-40 and that the tooling would be ready with no delay in case the design fizzled.

          And THEN NA spent time doing a preliminary design and showed it to the Brits who THEN signed off on it.

          As early as February, 25, 1940 Kindleberger (NA) was asked to consider building P-40’s. As far back as 1934-35, Edgar Schmued (P-51 chief designer) was working on various installations that showed up in the P-51. Cockpit layout, engine and gun installations, landing gear etc. He has so much preliminary work done that pretty much all he needed was a fuselage, wing and tail. Once the performance specs were written, Schmued had a 3-view done in a few days.

          In March Kindleberger told Schmued he was going to England in two weeks and in that time, Schmued gave him an inboard profile, 3 views, a performance estimate, weight estimate and gun installation drawings ready for him. Schmued’s weight estimates were always uncannily accurate.

          On Thursday, April 11, the Anglo-French purchasing director signed the letter of intent for the 400 51’s.

          May 29th the contract with the Brits was signed.

          First run up – October 11. First taxi tests Oct. 15. First flight October 26.

          So it really wasn’t 120 days. Though some of that was waiting around for an engine.

          And that sort of time scale was not unheard of in those days. There were scads of new designs popping up all through 1938, 39, and 1940. Most fizzled.

          Aside from the laminar flow wing, there was absolutely NOTHING about the P-51 that was new or bleeding edge. It was just an extremely good amalgamation of well known, well tested, tech of the time. The Meredith Effect radiator scoop was well known and had been used on other aircraft prior to the 51. And NA-73x – the one that flew “120” days from contract signing was very different from the next few articles coming off the line. Look at the different lengths of the carb scoop on the top of the fuselage, and the actual shape of the radiator doghouse.

          And then, the P-51 was not the star it became until 2 years later when the Brits mated the Rolls Royce Merlin to the -51 chassis.

          So as Larry points out it took a couple of years to actually get there. Although the Mk I or A Allison engined versions (far less performance) were in squadron service before that. And there were production problems.

          And as Larry points out, just the ejection seat of a modern fighter is about as complex as a P-51.

          1. Gregg,

            So you think 1940 wasn’t a crisis year for the Royal Air Force…

            And you claim to know history 🙂

          2. TM scribbles:

            “So you think 1940 wasn’t a crisis year for the Royal Air Force…

            And you claim to know history”

            You said “emergency” and even YOU put them in quotes. The 51 wasn’t built for the Battle of Britain but for the desert war that the Brits saw coming. That’s why they were going to go with the P-40: optimal performance wasn’t thought to be necessary.

            And as America wasn’t int he war yet, we were not in any emergency. North American felt some pressure because they promised to get one flying in the time to tool up for the 51. But this was no emergency…..

            as you very well (now) know.

            And yes I know far more history than you could ever dream to know. And have proven it several times right here.

          3. Gregg,

            You really need to stop getting your history from comic books and magazines 🙂

            The contract for 300 Mustang I was signed by the British only 3 days after Dunkirk, which I think even the British, as reserved as they were, would have called an “emergency”.

            Here’s a really good book that covers that era and how American industry responded to the “war emergency” the fall of France created in style!


            Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman

            As a bonus you will learn about the origin of the “Cost Plus” contracts that has driven the aerospace industry since 🙂

            And don’t forget to use Rand’s Amazon link so he gets a cut.

          4. “You really need to stop getting your history from comic books and magazines”

            Actually, oaf, my history that I posted above came from:

            “Mustang Designer: Edgar Schmued and the P-51” by Ray Wagner


            “Development of the P-51 Mustang Long Range Escort Fighter” by Paul A. Ludwig

            Your “history” comes from a fevered frightened little mind who loses every debate he enters into.

            Bringing in “cost plus” contracts is the usual deflection and change of subject we’ve come to expect from losers.

            The point (for the sentient readers) is that no design took 120 days…there’s no “start” and “stop” – every designer and every company has been cooking ideas for years and they often come together at just the right time.

          5. p.s. to TM:

            “The contract for 300 Mustang I was signed by the British only 3 days after Dunkirk, which I think even the British, as reserved as they were, would have called an “emergency”. ”

            Again, oaf, you should learn to read before writing:

            as I wrote above the Brits did NOT want the P-40 OR the P-51 for post Dunkirk European battle.

            They wanted the P-40’s for the easier theater such as Africa (see my references above).

            Therefore there wasn’t a BoB ”

            Nice try but that wiggle failed as well.

          6. Gregg,

            And yet the first RAF squadron to fly Mustangs was based in England…

            So yes, the British came looking for more P-40s, they left with orders for a new fighter, probably the greatest of WWII, and there was no RFP of RFI or any such money wasting non-sense involved… Which returns us to the point of this thread, a lot of procurement nonsense gets dumped when their is an emergency as was the case with World War II, or even the early space program. Look at the Navy’s Polaris program for another example.

          7. Gregg,

            Just show you know, I got it. Using a more modern analogy, I think Matula thought Boeing had no idea what they wanted to do with the 787 until they signed the first contract with ANA. Worse, the story of the P-51, P-80, and 787 development has nothing to do with NASA’s programs like Apollo, STS, ISS, or Orion.

          8. Leland,

            The British knew what they wanted the Mustang for, to supplement the Spitfire in replacing the outdated Hurricanes. They were using the P-40s for that purpose but NA offered them a better option.

          9. Ack, originally had, “just to show you”, and then switched sentence. Damn Homophones. Anyway, now Matula is pretending to be arguing your point all along.

    2. Leland,

      I couldn’t agree more. A few year ago I had the procurement officer from a local airbase as a student. He discussed how he was going to be busy for a couple weeks. Seems he committed the error of having a large surplus in his budget and the base commander wanted it ALL spent before the end of the fiscal year to avoid having to explain it. So spend it they did, buying new rugs and furniture and what have you for every building on base and paying extra to have them delivered and installed before the end of the fiscal year.

      He saw it was a joke, but was told he would be in regret it if there was any left over. A retired officer who was also in the class confirmed it recounting about all the explaining he had to do, including enduring a detailed audit, when he ended up with a surplus in a budget for a project he once worked on. Afterward he always made sure his account was zero at the end of the year. Seems to me one place to start to save money is to reward rather than punish the thrifty when they manage a budget to create a surplus.

      1. It goes both ways. Back in September 1991 when I was a Space Surveillance Program Manager at Peterson AFB, I got a call from a buddy in Space Command headquarters asking me if I could spend $10 million that afternoon. They had some money left over that they were unable to commit to contracts and wanted to know if we could use it. We did. Earlier that year, we’d taken a 10% cut in all of our contracts, only we didn’t get word of the cut until several months into the fiscal year so we effectively had to cut the burn rate by 20%. That caused a lot of pain. We used the fallout money to buy essential supplies such as generator fuel (for remote sensors) and spare parts that were going to be needed in the coming fiscal year. None of the money went to waste. I’m not saying that was the norm but that was my experience.

        By way of contrast, when I was stationed in Germany (78-80), we’d often get unneeded furniture added to our already overcrowded barracks (I refuse to call them dorms) rooms. It was “use it or lose it” money that went towards replacing perfectly usable desks, beds, trash cans, etc. How often do you really need to replace a metal trash can?

        1. Larry J,

          Good examples.

          Another example comes to mind is the Texan II and fixing things that are not broken. The students in my class, most of which were instructor pilots thought the T-37, a jet, was ideal for training since the instructor sat next to the student pilots and could easily watch to see how he was handling the controls and point to things in the cockpit. But the USAF in its wisdom decided to join with the Navy in replacing it with a joint use aircraft, the T-6, a turboprop, which had the instructor in the backseat. They really felt it was a step back and hated the idea. A couple did good decision management papers showing how it would save major money to just rebuild the T-37’s rather than replace them. But of course the replacement program went ahead anyway with no one caring about their opinion…

          1. The Tweet was a good plane but it was pretty expensive to operate. Those little turbojets were designed by France in the 1950s and sucked the fuel. Among its many nicknames were Converter (converted fuel into noise) and “3 ton dog whistle”. The plane wasn’t pressurized, didn’t have zero-zero ejection seats and featured steam guage instrumentation.

            Back in the 1970s, they tried to replace the Tweet with a new plane. Fairchild won the competition and built a few T-46s. They had twin turbofan engines, side-by-side seathing, pressurization and other improvements over the T-37. For some unknown reason, the plane was canceled.

            Incidentally, Burt Rutan started Scaled Composites in part due to his work on a single seat flying scaled model of the T-46. He built the plane so Fairchild could do spin testing and it helped them win the trainer contract.

      2. I probably should have used Acquisition rather than Procurement, because Matula, I really didn’t have that concept in mind. You can understand if you see the video. However, I know what you are discussing as well. I got in a project that was based on such a situation. NASA Engineering had some extra dollars to kill by end of fiscal, so I was asked to look into how they could do electronic design automation. What they meant by it was akin to alchemy at the time, and I found various consortiums already trying to solve this problem for which NASA belonged. Still, I was given money and asked to determine the feasibility. I came back a month later with what I knew in the first hour of research: current technology lacked the capability. I then went back to my commercial project.

  8. It would probably help if we had a coherent foreign policy. Something that left no doubt that keep to yourself and we won’t intrude, Harm us and you can be sure of a clobbering. With the current DC regime we can’t be sure what they’d do in any given situation.

    1. Under the Constitution, foreign policy comes from the president and that changes every 4-8 years. The State Department is a bureaucracy that ignores/undermines any president it doesn’t like. They know that presidents come and go but bureaucracy goes on forever. That’s the closest thing we have to a consistent foreign policy.

      As for a coherent foreign policy, we need to have a discussion on what are our national interests and long term goals and compare that to the realistic potential threats against us over the next 20-40 years. The development of military policy, procurement and doctrine would flow from that. We can’t be all things to all people. We aren’t the world’s police force and we don’t want to be a police state.

  9. Gee, Looks like the White House rejected the Death Star petition. I guess they aren’t really committed to having the most power military anymore 🙂

    White House: Thumbs down on Death Star, thumbs up on space

    [[[The White House says building a Death Star would be an out-of-this-galaxy waste of money — not only because it’s against government policy to blow up planets, but also because the United States already has access to a space station as well as a laser-wielding space robot.]]]

    But you know the White House’s response makes me wonder what they are hiding on the ISS that its considered a substitute. Maybe that is why NASA doesn’t like tourists aboard 🙂

      1. Because ancient religions and hokey superstitions fail to conjure up rebels or their bases?

        Fear will keep the locals in line.

Comments are closed.