It was 1989 — and everyone knew that defense budgets were going to go down.
At the time, spending less on defense made sense. Almost overnight, with the Soviet Union disintegrating from within, the world had become dramatically safer. The U.S. would need a smaller conventional force, a reduced nuclear arsenal, and a shift in focus of its national security missions.
Leaders in the Pentagon, writes historian Lorna Jaffe, recognized that if “the military did not plan these reductions in a rational manner, then Congress and OMB would impose them.”
The result was the “Base Force,” the most sweeping and comprehensive rethinking of military needs since the start of the Cold War. Absent superpower competition, the thinking went, what did America need to defend itself against?
They came up with a prudent answer. But it didn’t matter. The Base Force proved a speed-bump in the race to reap a “peace dividend.” In fact, the reductions in military spending from the end of the Cold War until 9/11 were so dramatic that they did much to mask the fact that Washington was spending on everything else like a drunken sailor.
The Base Force recommendations were barely being implemented when the Clinton administration ordered the 1993 “Bottom-Up Review” of military requirements. That was followed a few years later by the first congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review. In each successive case, the convenient answer to the question of how much defense was enough was always less.
Every review became more of a budget-driven exercise than anything else — more concerned with answering the question, “How little security can we get away with so we can shift dollars to grow big government in Washington?”
In fiscal year 1992, defense accounted for 25.2 percent of federal spending, (excluding interest on the debt). The non-defense portion of the federal budget made up the other 74.8 percent. Since then, defense spending as a percent of the total budget has continued to decline significantly. The rest of the budget has been growing.
There is a simple explanation why the U.S. military was largely unprepared for 9/11; why there were too few troops for Iraq or Afghanistan; why there wasn’t enough body armor, or up-armored vehicles, or too few unmanned aerial vehicles, or anything else our armed forces lacked — Washington had been systematically under-funding defense for over a decade. And most of the additional spending since 9/11 has gone to pay for current conflicts, not to rebuild our armed forces.
So when President Obama declared in his big government-spending plan speech that he was going to order a review of the military’s roles and missions, it was pretty clear what the answer will be. Obama’s Pentagon will produce another budget-cutting justification.
Like all the previous rubber-stamped studies, the report will justify savings by declaring that the U.S. will “manage” risk. Such claims are fatuous on their face.
The Base Force understood that the future is a foreign country: It’s impossible to know what it is like until you get there. The team that wrote the Base Force knew that it was stupid to try managing risk on global scale.
Instead, they thought in terms of “hedging” against risk. But hedging requires investing — not cuts.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.