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A Reasonable Defense

David Callahan

Last year, in 2012, the U.S. government spent about $841 billion on security -- a figure that includes defense, intelligence, war appropriations, and foreign aid. At the same time, the government collected about $1.1 trillion in individual income taxes. (And about $2.4 trillion in revenues overall if you include payroll, corporate, estate, and excise taxes.) 

In other words, about 80 cents of every dollar collected in traditional federal income taxes went for security. 

That's an astonishing statistic, and it captures the most underappreciated aspect of today's fiscal challenges: We have a security spending problem. Such spending is significantly higher than all non-defense discretionary domestic spending. 

Worse yet, almost nobody in Washington seems interested in seriously curtailing defense spending that is greater in real terms than what the U.S. spent in the Cold War -- despite the fact that the U.S. will be officially at peace when we withdraw from Aghanistan next year and the U.S. faces no major global adversaries.

While the Simpson-Bowles Commission advocated over a trillion dollars in defense cuts, President Obama's budget would only reduce spending modestly, and even that's a hard sell on Capitol Hill. Both parties happily suspended planned defense cuts under sequestration as part of the fiscal cliff deal. 

Given all this, it was great to read a new report by the Project on Defense Alternatives entitled "Reasonable Defense: A Sustainable Approach to Securing the Nation" and written by Carl Conetta. PDA has long been a leading voice for responsible defense spending. But today, with the fiscal heat on, their work is more timely and important than ever. 

The new report sets the defense challenge in it's proper context: Which is that the United States is operating in a much more competitive global economy and needs to rethink its ideas of national strength, along with its budgetary priorities:

Today, the challenge that will most affect America’s future prospects lies in the economic sphere, not the military one. In this respect the current era is distinct from the period of the Second World War and the Cold War. How America handles current fiscal challenges and reorders government priorities should reflect this fact. . . . In all areas of policy, new economic realities compel national leaders to adopt a longer view, set clearer priorities, seek new efficiencies, and attend more closely to the ratio of costs, risks, and benefits when allocating resources.

A centerpiece of the report's strategic framework is the idea of Adaptive Security. This approach focuses: 

America’s armed forces on deterring and containing current threats, while working principally by other means to reduce future conflict potentials and strengthen the foundation for cooperative action. This would move America toward a future in which threat potentials are lower and security cooperation greater. While the United States uses its military power to check real and present threats of violence, it would employ non-military instruments to impede the emergence of new threats and reduce future conflict potentials. 

This strategy makes a whole lot of sense in a world where America's real enemies, like Iran and Al-Qaeda, are quite weak while our main potential enemy, China, is very strong.

While many in the Pentagon -- with their worst-case mindsets -- may be inclined to maintain a military that could deal with all potential enemies, the Adaptive Security formula suggests that the U.S. focus other kinds of resources on making sure such enemies never materialize. If money were limitless, one could argue the merits of either approach.  But in today's fiscal climate, Adaptive Security is the only affordable path. 

In any case, the rise of China in particular underscores how economic challenges are the biggest challenges facing the United States, as Conetta argues. If we're really worried about being dominated by China, we should be focused on training more engineers not more fighter pilots.

Beyond its big picture contributions, "Reasonable Defense" makes many smart points about how to create a more cost-efficient defense sector and a leaner military -- and reduce defense spending by a half trillion over the next decade.

Let's hope this report gets widely read in Washington.