U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Charles Morgan

Three Myths About the Defense Budget

Critics who say the Pentagon’s FY15 budget request is a ‘skeleton budget’ that sets us back to pre-War War II levels are wrong. Here’s why. By Ben Freeman

The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2015 budget request has been savaged by Republicans and even some Democrats. Critics argue it’s “a skeleton defense budget,” that will “dramatically reduce the size of the Army to pre-World War II levels,” and all of this “will embolden America’s foes to take aggressive acts.” All of these critiques have one thing in common: they’re not true. Here’s why:

The first myth of the defense budget debate—that it’s a small or “skeleton” budget—is belied by the simple fact that President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget gives the military more money than Ronald Reagan ever did, as a recent Third Way memo reported. The president’s budget sets the military’s base budget at $495.6 billion, just under the cap set by Congress in the Bipartisan Budget Act, with an additional $79.4 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), for a grand total of $575 billion in funding for the military. The most funding the military ever received under President Reagan was approximately $560 billion in today’s dollars, according to Office of Management and Budget data. 

So, unless critics are prepared to argue Reagan was soft on defense, it’s nonsense to claim Obama is.

The second myth of the defense budget debate—that the Army will be reduced to “pre-World War II levels”—doesn’t hold up either, given the simple fact that the Pentagon’s plan to have a 440,000-450,000 person Army provides America with 180,000 more soldiers than we had prior to World War II, and approximately 5% fewer than we had prior to the war in Afghanistan. 

This “smaller Army” claim also doesn’t account for the fact that the Army has added nearly 20,000 civilian personnel to its payroll since 2001. Nor does it account for the surge in contractors performing jobs once fulfilled by active-duty Army personnel. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a House Appropriations Committee, because of contractors, soldiers “don’t peel potatoes anymore.” In 2013 alone the Army spent $87.7 billion on contracts—more than twice what it spent in 2001 and more than the military’s entire budget in 1940, in 2014 dollars. 

When all these additional Army personnel are accounted for we will be left with an Army that’s significantly larger than when the war in Afghanistan began. 

The third myth of the defense budget debate—that the budget “will embolden America’s foes”—is contradicted by the simple fact that the U.S. will still have the greatest military in the world, by far. We’ll still be spending nearly as much on the military as the next eight countries combined, including spending more than three times as much as China and five times as much as Russia. 

This spending translates into very real capability advantages over our current and potential adversaries. Even with planned reductions in aircraft, the military will still have more than 13,000 aircraft in operation, which is about as many planes and helicopters as the next eight countries combined. Even if the U.S.S. George Washington is retired, we’ll still have nearly as many aircraft carriers as the rest of the world combined.

This overwhelming military overmatch sends a clear message to America’s foes that is anything but emboldening.

While myths abound, the Pentagon budget certainly is not beyond reproach. For starters, it’s unclear why there are OCO funding placeholders out to the year 2021 for a conflict that will end this year, or why the Administration chose to do such a convoluted budget rollout process that led to confusion in Congress and the Pentagon, or why the budget assumes sequestration spending caps (also known as “the law”) will disappear, which only exacerbates uncertainty in the planning process. 

But instead of focusing on problems like this and engaging in a meaningful discussion of how we can make America safer, most critiques perpetuate the myths listed here. Meanwhile, the threats we face, our fiscal challenges, and the need for DOD reforms remain very real, and will stay so as long as America’s national security discussion remains an echo chamber of cheap and misleading political sound bites.

Dr. Ben Freeman is the Policy Advisor for National Security at Third Way. He specializes in Defense Department personnel issues, weapons procurement, and is the author of The Foreign Policy Auction, an investigation of the foreign influence industry in America.  Follow him on Twitter @BenFreemanDC.