January 27, 2012

What Americans Think About the Defense Budget

The New York Times generated a handy budget calculator that allowed its readers to trim dollars off the budget of the Department of Defense. As my colleague Travis Sharp noted, the cuts they collectively voted on reveal some really interesting things about what a reasonably informed public -- the kind of people who participate in online defense budget surveys, for example -- thinks about defense policy.

1. John Mearsheimer and Bob Kaplan may believe in the stopping power of water, but the public isn't so convinced. It has little idea what the U.S. Navy (SEAL teams aside) does in terms of national security. The public is more ready to stop building ships than it is to stop buying aircraft or to cut ground forces. Here the public is at odds with the majority of defense policy analysts I know. 

2. Half of the public is in favor of removing one leg -- nuclear weapons on bombers -- from the nuclear triad.

3. The public wants to close bases overseas -- even though, as Travis noted in an email, these bases can save money by reducing the cost of getting soldiers in and out of theater.

4. The public might not fully understand how much of the defense budget is eaten up by personnel costs. The public was very reluctant to cap the pay of service personnel and wanted to keep TriCare -- though it was open to a raise in TriCare premiums.

I think we in the defense analysis community have to do a better job explaining some things to the public, such as why, in the event of a major war, you can recruit and train new infantry battalions quicker than you can design and build ships, and also how much of the budget is eaten up by personnel costs. If you are a member of the Congress, meanwhile, I think you will find that you have more support to cut the defense budget than you might have previously thought. It will be up to you, though, to explain to your constituents why some cuts are smarter than others and why some "obvious" cuts are not as smart on second glance as they are at first.