Should the enormous US military budget—which is more than double the combined levels of military spending by China, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Germany—be cut? This question is finally on the table, thanks to the winding down of combat activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and to Washington’s obsession with tamping down the federal deficits that have arisen from the Great Recession. Many who would like to protect the military from the budget knife raise economic arguments to make their case: Won’t cutting military spending be bad for jobs, just when we need to maintain focus on reducing unemployment? Won’t it threaten the country’s long-term technological capabilities?
The matter assumed increased urgency in November after the Congressional supercommittee failed to agree on a deficit-reduction plan. This failure set in motion an agenda for automatic cuts—or “sequestration” of funds—from military and nonmilitary budgets beginning in January 2013. According to the sequestration scenario, absent the adoption of a large-scale deficit-cutting plan, military and nonmilitary spending would face $55 billion per year in automatic cuts over a decade, relative to previously established spending levels. If Congress and the White House devise a way to exempt the Pentagon from the automatic cuts—as seems increasingly likely—the cuts will instead be taken from healthcare, education, social spending, infrastructure and the environment.
Of course, framing the deficit issue in terms of military versus social spending cuts ignores other options, such as raising taxes on the wealthy. It also erroneously assumes that reducing the federal deficit is necessary now, before the economy has settled onto a sustainable recovery path out of the recession. Even more fundamental, today’s debate largely skirts the question of what the military budget needs to be after Iraq and Afghanistan, and fails to grapple honestly with the impact that major military spending reductions would have on the economy, especially in terms of job opportunities and technology.