By By Andrew Drwiega | May 1, 2012
The single biggest threat to national security is the national debt. When Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) began his address to delegates on the second day of the main forum at the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A) in Nashville, Tenn., with the above warning, you could almost sense the assembled military personnel reaching for their helmets and looking for a foxhole.
Yet the quote is not new, but delivered 18 months previously by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. It seems not to have been heeded as America’s national debt soars past $25.3 trillion. (For more on the budget and national debt, see related story on page 16, Army Aviation Caucus Chairman: U.S. Debt Biggest Threat to National Security.)
Sessions warmed his audience by declaring, “we seek maximum advantage on the battlefield,” but added “as we wrestle with budget cuts, future forces must be similarly equipped on the battlefield.” Quite how this works in practice is not so clear.
“We have never faced a more predictable crisis and we are facing some difficult challenges,” he admitted, adding that wasteful programs should be targeted. However, he remained eager to keep the military in the audience onside with a robust protection of the defense budget. “I would like to address a few myths in Washington,” Sessions began.
“The first is that defense has seen the fastest growth in our budget. Over the last three years the defense budget has increased about 10 percent (just over 3 percent per year), while spending on Medicare has increased 37 percent over the same period. Spending on the Department on Education increased 70 percent relative to the previous three years, while food stamps have increased 300 percent since 2001. So defense is not the fastest growing item in the budget.” [Without the figures to compare however, quotes of percentages should be weighed with care.]
Sessions also defended spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stating that they were not the leading cause of the national deficit. “As of last year the wars have cost $1.3 trillion over 10 years [This still represents an average of $130 billion per year–Ed]. The (U.S.) deficit for last year alone was $1.3 trillion,” he told the audience.
He also turned on those who claimed that defense spending was at an all-time high. “During the War on Terror, defense spending has averaged around 4 percent of GDP, about half what was spent post-World War II,” he said. “Fifty years ago in 1962, national defense made up 48 percent of the federal budget while entitlement spending accounted for 26 percent. Next year, however, entitlements will account for 60 percent of the entire federal budget against 19 percent for defense.”
Even completely eliminating the defense department would not balance the budget, he pointed out. The Department of Defense accounts for $688.3 billion out of the total Defense budget of $903.3 billion (which includes veterans—$130 billion; foreign economic aid—$43.8 billion; and foreign military aid—$12.5 billion). The 2012 deficit will again be over $1 trillion.
But he did concede that “the Pentagon will have to do its part—and there will have to be tough choices.”
There was a quick sideswipe at Europe following the visit of the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron. “Europe’s share of defense responsibility is falling. They claim 2 percent commitment of GDP towards NATO when they are closer to 1 percent,” said Sessions.
He reminded the audience that “we borrow 40 cents of every dollar we spend. Last year we spent $3.7 billion and we took in $2.2 billion; we borrowed the difference. If we don’t change that there won’t be anything to build the defense department on.” He stated that the U.S. had “never faced a more predictable crisis. We should target wasteful programs... but the military should not take the brunt of cuts.”
Under sequestration, defense spending, which is one-sixth of the Federal budget, would experience a 20 percent net reduction in real dollars over 10 years, while other departments would experience a 50 percent increase, he suggested. Sessions finished by saying that he believed that a lot more than the federally stated $2.1 trillion as part of the budget agreement last summer needed to be cut. He reeled off figures already being touted of up to $6 trillion in cuts. So his message seemed inconclusive—which perhaps did nothing to assuage the worries of the military.
The end game here is not encouraging. The military has done a good job; defense should be protected; but the deficit is its biggest threat yet—and this will perhaps be the most difficult fight yet experienced by this generation.