Shadow Government

Obama’s defense budget sacrifices U.S. primacy

By Dov Zakheim The Obama defense budget is neither the disastrous downturn that most analysts predicted, nor the boost the administration claims. What it is, though, is plenty worrisome. The president is fond of saying that we need to make long-term "investments" in worthy national goals. Well, his defense budget is no such investment in ...

By Dov Zakheim

The Obama defense budget is neither the disastrous downturn that most analysts predicted, nor the boost the administration claims. What it is, though, is plenty worrisome. The president is fond of saying that we need to make long-term "investments" in worthy national goals. Well, his defense budget is no such investment in our national defense.

While the administration is certainly funding short-term military needs, it appears willing to sacrifice long-term U.S. military superiority. We should not forget that, even if China’s GDP is no longer growing at 8-9 percent each year, even a five percent annual growth will enable Beijing to continue to modernize and expand its military capability over the medium to long term, while the current U.S. defense budget clearly limits our capability over the same time frame.

And China may be the least of America’s concerns. With a residual force of some 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, with a force nearly as large in Afghanistan — and no end in sight for those forces in either country — and with the potential for conflict in many other parts of the world, from North Korea to Latin America, one has to wonder whether the new defense budget really reflects a strategic vision, or whether it is more of a tactical exercise.

The budget will fund personnel and operations and maintenance accounts and, if the supplemental is included, war operations as well. The personnel accounts will include an accelerated increase in Army and Marine Corps end-strength. And benefits are being expanded, including concurrent receipt of military retirement pay and Veterans Disability Compensation, which will significantly increase personnel related costs.

The administration has incorporated into the baseline a number of programs that previously were funded in the supplemental. Some of these programs, such as assistance to foreign states whose forces operate alongside us in Iraq and Afghanistan, family assistance, and programs to improve intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance do indeed belong in the baseline. It is unclear, however, whether the residual supplemental will fully account for other war-related costs, and whether the baseline budget’s increase over Fiscal Year 2009 will support the inclusion of formerly supplemental programs while at the same time preserving the full funding of other accounts already in the baseline.

In fact, personnel and operations and maintenance costs will squeeze procurement and research and development programs, and do so at a time when the loss of engineering jobs will run counter to the administration’s job creation policy. More ominously, while foreign students will continue to dominate key university post-graduate science and engineering programs, young American engineers, who probably are most familiar with state-of-the-art developments in their fields, are more likely to be laid off first as procurement programs are cuts. The administration seems oblivious to the implications of this long-term threat to our national security.

The issue is not one of percentage of gross domestic product. The United States should spend what it needs to on defense, be it 3, 4, 5 or 8 percent of GDP. That said, it is not at all clear that that the administration will be spending what it needs to in order to maintain our current defense posture.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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