January 10, 2019

Dear Pentagon: It’s Not How Big Your Budget Is. It’s How You Use It.

By Susanna V. Blume

Over the past two months, unusually public negotiations between the White House and the U.S. Department of Defense on the 2020 defense budget request have bounced from $733 billion down to $700 billion, and then back up again to $750 billion. All of this swamps the Obama administration’s last national defense budget request for FY 2017—$608 billion. And if you think these shifts have been dynamic, just wait until the now-divided Congress takes up the question this spring, “in light of the fact that the current legal cap on defense spending for 2020 is $576 billion (not including Overseas Contingency Operations funding for current military operations). Political and military leaders are throwing around a lot of really big numbers in their public remarks, raising the question: How much does the United States really need to spend on defense? And how will we know when we get there?

The question isn’t being asked correctly. Defense spending should always be a function of foreign policy. The only way to determine how much is enough is to decide what the military needs to be able to do, and how much risk political and military leaders are willing to accept in doing it—or not doing it. Popular measures often cited as necessary to determine the sufficiency or insufficiency of the defense budget (such as the percentage of GDP relative to other countries’ defense budgets) are irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. To get the defense budget right, we need to stop arguing about numbers in the abstract and start having a serious conversation about what the United States wants its military to be able to do. Both defense hawks and defense spending skeptics use these kinds of metrics to support predetermined conclusions for either larger or smaller defense budgets.

Read the full article and more in Foreign Policy.

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