A Leaner and Meaner Defense

Gordon Adams, Matthew Leatherman
Content Type
Journal Article
Foreign Affairs
Issue Number
Publication Date
Council on Foreign Relations
Pentagon budgets have soared over the last decade, partly because of a failure to prioritize. In the coming age of austerity, major cuts are imperative -- and if done right, they will not harm U.S. interests.
Security, Counterinsurgency
Political Geography
United States
The United States faces a watershed moment: it must decide whether to increase its already massive debt in order to continue being the world's sheriff or restrain its military missions and focus on economic recovery. Military power has dominated the United States' global engagement over the last decade, but it is now clear that the country overreached. Americans are questioning whether pursuing a defense strategy focused on counterinsurgency and nation building, supported by a defense budget that is growing continuously, makes sense at a time of severe economic and fiscal challenges. As the Obama administration enters the second half of its term and a new Congress assembles, the U.S. government must make difficult choices about which defense missions to undertake, exercise restraint in defense planning and budgeting, and bring tough management practices to the Pentagon. U.S. military missions and the defense budget that supports them have grown without discipline over the past decade, largely as a consequence of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Various administrations and Congresses have neglected the imperative of setting priorities. This has allowed the Department of Defense to undertake an ever-growing array of tasks, adding to traditional missions, such as conventional and nuclear deterrence, sea-lane patrol, and disaster relief, a suite of new ones: nation building, stabilizing fragile states, counterinsurgency, and strengthening the security capacities of other countries. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review reinforced this trend by overstating the world's dangers and advocating the elimination of all possible risks. The U.S. government's ambitions now outstrip its capacities at home and its welcome abroad. The national defense budget accounts for 56 percent of all U.S. federal discretionary spending. Defense is now one of the country's "Big Four" accounts, consuming roughly the same share of federal spending as do each of Social Security, income-based entitlements (such as welfare), and the total nondefense discretionary budget. And the United States is expected to spend over $700 billion on national defense in 2011 -- twice as much as it spent in 2001, more in real dollars than for any year since the end of World War II, and as much as is spent by the rest of the world's militaries combined