A Far too Costly Pentagon


(United Press International)

by David C. Gompert and James Dobbins

February 27, 2006

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) — The Pentagon's new Quadrennial Defense Review is right to give top priority to non-traditional national security demands: countering the spreading Islamist-terrorist insurgency and stabilizing fragile states that could succumb to this insurgency. The threat of violent extremism demands a de-emphasis of dangers from hostile nations, none of which would dare to challenge America militarily.

At the same time, it is fair to ask how the "Long War" on terrorism, as the Pentagon puts it, justifies the unrelentingly rapid growth in budget for the Department of Defense by another 7 percent for 2007. The threat has mutated since 2001.

As al-Qaida, its imitators, and its offshoots spread and burrow into Muslim populations from Bali to Britain, combating terrorists has come to depend mainly on non-military capabilities such as infrastructure and transport security, financial tracking, sophisticated police work, development assistance, and energetic diplomacy. Yet the government continues to argue for greatly increased spending on military forces under the banner of the war on terrorism.

Post-Sept. 11, 2001 increases in annual Defense Department spending, even when the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are excluded, have dwarfed increases in spending for all other departments critical to counter-terrorism combined (Justice, State, and Homeland Security) by five to one — roughly $150 billion to $30 billion. Yet it is those civilian agencies, in conjunction with friendly governments around the world, that have neutralized most al-Qaida operatives and foiled most terrorist threats since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.

The QDR suggests that the Pentagon itself realizes that the military forces of particular value in counter-terrorism are Special Operations Forces — for example, Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs — that possess the agility, stealth, and precision needed to combat this spreading and elusive insurgency.

After letting Special Operations Forces' share of the Defense Department budget decline in recent years, despite the terrorist threat, the Pentagon plans, correctly, to increase spending for these forces. But even then, these forces of most relevance to counter-terrorism will consume just over 1 percent of total defense spending. And the welcome $1 billion growth in the Special Operations Forces budget for next year is only 4 percent of the growth in the Defense Department's budget as a whole.

Along with counter-terrorism, the Pentagon has at last designated post-conflict "stabilization and reconstruction" — peacekeeping and nation-building — as primary missions of U.S. forces. This is an important lesson learned from Iraq, where the military was ill prepared for such missions.

Yet the main military forces to be used for peacekeeping are the same as those for fighting wars. Indeed, the Army is not going to grow to meet these requirements but instead will shrink. Moreover, as Iraq reveals, civilian departments, not the Pentagon, must take the lead in all but the security aspects of nation building.

In sum, the non-traditional military missions premised on the Long War against violent extremism require comparatively little investment, leaving us with a large question: Why does Defense Department spending keep climbing so steeply when (a) non-military means have become more important against the changing terrorist threat and (b) the military capabilities of most value in countering terrorism are so inexpensive?

There are two possible explanations. The first is that big and expensive defense-equipment programs (combat aircraft, naval destroyers and submarines, missile defense) continue to be built at escalating costs — $84 billion for 2007, 17 percent more than planned, and 15 times the cost of Special Operations Forces — despite being more suitable for traditional wars than for fighting dispersed terrorists.

The contractors and military services wedded to these huge investments will claim that every dollar is essential for fighting al-Qaida, but the Pentagon's own emphasis on Special Operations Forces belies such claims. We do not claim that these capabilities are not needed; but their justification should not be confused with fighting al-Qaida.

The other explanation is that the Defense Department has its eye on one especially formidable potential opponent: China. In fact, China is investing heavily in missiles and submarines, precisely the weapons that would make U.S. forces vulnerable in the Western Pacific. This would account for the some continued huge U.S. investments in traditional military hardware. China's buildup cannot be ignored if this vital region is to remain stable.

On the other hand, China has an enormous stake in avoiding conflict with the United States. In any case, if the Pentagon plans a major military response to offset the growth in Chinese capabilities, the public and Congress should debate it on those terms, not obscured by talk of counter-terrorism (where China is a U.S. partner).

At a time of a $423 billion annual federal budget deficit, it is not enough to assert that the war against terrorism justifies a $439 billion Defense Department budget. With reductions in social programs, the extension of tax cuts, and growing demands for non-Defense Department counter-terrorism capabilities, the latest Defense budget deserves a hard look.

© 2006 United Press International

David C. Gompert is a senior fellow and James Dobbins is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on February 27, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.