Defense budgets headed down, no matter who’s in the White House

Nov. 1, 2008
It looks like U.S. defense spending is headed downward–no matter who takes the big chair in the Oval Office come January.

John Keller

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Editor in Chief

It looks like U.S. defense spending is headed downward–no matter who takes the big chair in the Oval Office come January. I, of course, write this before Election Day, so I’ll have a better read in this space next November.

If our new president is to be Barack Obama, he will inherit an over-burdened U.S. military force in a dangerous world of demanding commitments that could not sustain substantial budget cuts. If the new president is John McCain, he will face so many financial pressures on the federal budget as to find few ways to grow–or even sustain–defense spending as it has been for most of this decade.

These are the predictions of the Government Electronics Industry Association (GEIA) segment of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., presented in October at the organization’s annual 10-year forecast of U.S. defense spending.

The bottom line, according to the GEIA, is it makes little difference who has won the election; the financial and political imperatives the next president will face leave little room for big changes.

Sure, I’ve read the worrisome predictions of the impact of an Obama presidency on our military forces. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., opened his mouth last November to call for a 25 percent cut in defense spending to help pay for infrastructure, health care, food stamps, and expanded unemployment benefits.

I don’t think such a cut will come to pass–even if voters elect enough Democrats to Congress to set up a so-called “veto-proof majority.” I don’t think any Congress, no matter how anti-military and how far to the left their politics, would approve such a cut in U.S. national security.

I also don’t think any Democrat majority in Congress with a sense of long-term electoral survival would let a guy like Barney Frank anywhere near the House Armed Services Committee. Congressman Frank has been “productive” enough in his role mandating home mortgages for those who can’t afford them, but I digress.

Also somewhat worrisome are comments by Obama that he’d like to cut 15 percent of the Pentagon’s budget for education, health care, job training, alternative energy development, world hunger, and deficit reduction…but those comments represent just one day to one particular constituency (the left-wing Caucus for Priorities).

Obama, at different times, also has said he favors a strong military, which more than anything, he says is necessary to sustain peace. If Obama is our new president, we should see soon enough which of those views he really favors.

The GEIA’s view, which I share, is it doesn’t really matter. In fact, fuel prices should have a much broader influence on defense spending over the next several years than who’s resident in the White House. Why?

Think of it this way: all those military jet fighters and transport aircraft slug down a lot of jet fuel. Those surface ships and ground vehicles also consume staggering amounts of fuel. We have to find a way to pay for that fuel somewhere, and if the price is high, the costs will come out of other segments of the defense budget–namely research, development, and procurement.

Sure, in theory we might be able to find other places in the defense budget to find more money for gas, oil, and diesel fuel. The big question is where? Obama, himself, has voiced his support to grow U.S. ground forces by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines. If he does that, it would potentially be great for U.S. defense preparedness.

On the other hand, all those extra soldiers and Marines need to be paid, fed, clothed, trained, and equipped. I guess that extra money we need for fuel won’t come out of the personnel accounts. The operations and maintenance sections of the defense budget are pretty well certain to increase because of fuel costs.

What’s left? I’ll tell you: the so-called “investment accounts” of procurement, research, and development.

Overall, GEIA predicts the entire defense budget might have an insignificant increase over the next 10 years. The organization’s latest figures have the DOD budget increasing from $491 billion to $534 billion between 2009 and 2019. Don’t celebrate too soon; that’s less than one-half of one percent. I doubt if we’ll even see that kind of overall defense budget increase.

The scary part of the GEIA’s forecast involves the operations and maintenance account, which the organization predicts will increase from $34.2 billion to $42.9 billion over the next 10 years. That’s where the fuel costs are, as well as food, clothing, and related expenses.

With that kind of increase in an essentially flat defense budget, we know where the reductions will be. GEIA predicts a decrease in the defense research budget over the next decade from $15.9 billion in 2009 to $10.4 billion in 2019. That means less for developing new weapons and technologies.

Furthermore, the GEIA predicts a decrease in the defense procurement budget from $20.6 billion to $19.2 billion. That account is for new ships, aircraft, and combat vehicles, and electronic equipment–as well as for repair and upgrades, which U.S. forces severely need after so many years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cross your fingers and keep an eye on your programs. It looks like the long era of defense budget increases is at an end. When that trend will reverse is anyone’s guess.

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