Misspending on Arms Worsens Deficit Problem

by Barbara R. Bergmann and Lucy Law Webster, Members of the Board of Directors of
Economists Allied for Arms Reduction

The record federal deficit of $512 billion projected in the budget released early in February by President Bush comes in significant part from overspending on defense. Critics of current deficit spending have put most of the blame on the Bush tax cuts and have passed over the role of military spending on the grounds that everything needed for national security must be endorsed following the 9/11/01 attack. But an examination of the defense budget reveals billions of dollars committed to programs that are not well designed to increase security.

Take the spending budgeted for ballistic missile defense: $10.2 billion is to be spent so missile interceptors will be in place by November 2004 even though the General Accounting Office has warned that the technology is unproven. Further, an enemy could ship in bombs via shipping containers or commercial airliners, without divulging the source of attack. If ineffectual anti-missile hardware is deployed, it will be like spending the nation’s treasure on scrap metal.

Before the attack on the World Trade Center, the defense budget was $250 billion a year compared to $401.7 billion in the budget announced this week, which does not include anything for military action and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress has already approved $166 billion beyond the regular budget for Afghanistan and Iraq and the White House budget director Joshua Bolten estimates that as much as $50 billion more could be required for these two countries in 2005.

Much of the pre-9/11 defense budget was devoted to armaments designed to counter weapons that had been developed by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was never as strong as advertised, and now it’s gone. Yet billions are still being spent to maintain and improve weapons that were designed to counter Russian intercontinental attacks. In so far as the strategic weapons now in post-Cold War Russia pose any threat to the United States it is because they have not been fully dismantled and destroyed and are not well protected from theft and potential sale to terrorists or to governments who think that having such weapons would make them more secure. One place where more spending would be in order would be accelerated programs to help Russia dismantle its Cold-War arsenal, as the Russians have requested.

The Al Qaeda attack was given as a reason to increase defense spending. The fight against terrorism was declared to be “a war” within days of the attack. Naturally, in time of war, it is assumed that we have to spend more on the military, so the 2003 defense budget rose through various supplemental allocations to be some $400 billion, and the fiscal 2004 defense budget presented as $401.7 billion can be expected to become well over $500 billion once the supplemental budgets for Iraq and Afghanistan are added. This is being done with no debate or public attention to what that extra money will buy. Mostly more of the same anti-Soviet hardware, it would seem. But more and better bombs, snazzier tanks, fancier planes will not make us safer from suicide bombers.

The invasion of Afghanistan was justified because we were attacked and threatened with further attack by people based in Afghanistan. But now effective action against Al Qaeda depends on cutting the terrorists’ flow of funds and arranging to arrest their operatives, scattered around the globe in dozens of countries. That kind of operation must be waged by diplomacy and police action; it does not call for more expensive military hardware.

The invasion of Iraq had various motives—to reshape the power structure of the region and clear a path for democracy in Iraq and neighboring countries, to be where the best oil is located, to make sure that any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would not be used. And we did what we know how to do: wage high-tech warfare. It is now quite clear that our action has led to a great deal of expensive trouble and may have done more harm than good combating terrorism. No one can know what the reconstruction of Iraq will cost; the main challenge will be to do it in a way that will enhance and not reduce peace and democracy in the region.

Deficits in a time of unemployment can help to get an economy back on the path of growth. But an overblown defense budget, like tax cuts for the rich, does not stimulate healthy growth. The same funds could be far better used to finance what the American people need: better schools, help with college costs, more child care subsidies, and repairing the national infrastructure.