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Why Should Defense Spending Be Sancrosanct?

Whether or not the Obama administration’s spending “freeze” is a hatchet or a scalpel — see Rachel Maddow’s grilling of vice-presidential economist Jared Bernstein yesterday — defense spending is going to be unaffected. Why in the world should that be?

Not a single defense wonk believes that the $663 billion defense budget contains only necessary spending. You can find some who believe as an article of faith that defense spending should always increase. But those guys are mocked by the smarter think tanks at places like the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. In fact, check out this October assessment from CSBA’s Todd Harrison comparing the Pentagon to General Motors:

Another similarity between the two is that both organizations are in a period of disruptive change in the competitive environment. In GM’s case, its market share rapidly eroded as gas prices climbed higher, the economy slowed, and consumers turned to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. GM found itself building a fleet of SUVs and trucks that consumers did not want and could not afford. Similarly, DoD now finds itself saddled with a number of weapon programs whose capabilities are ill-suited for the types of conflict the military currently faces and whose costs have risen beyond what the Department can afford. Many of the new weapons being funded today are optimized for middle-of-the- spectrum conflicts—that is, conventional, military-on-military conflicts such as Operation Desert Storm in 1991. But adversaries are well aware of the United States’ overwhelming advantage in the middle and are instead moving to either end of the spectrum: irregular warfare on one end and high-end, asymmetric warfare on the other. The challenge for DoD, as it was for GM, is that the competition is adapting faster than it can keep up.

Harrison’s specific solution is to rein in personnel costs — veterans’ healthcare, for instance — as much as to tackle useless defense platforms and unrealistic research and development costs. But the broader point is that he’s willing to have an adult conversation about defense spending and the Obama administration isn’t. It’s telling that the most important force in the Obama administration for rebalancing defense priorities is a holdover Republican defense secretary.

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