By most newspaper and television news accounts, the real unresolved questions in the current debate on Capitol Hill over the FY2012 budget is the extent to which Congress will aim to reduce the deficit and what type of compromise will be struck between Democrats and Republicans on cuts in entitlement programs. There is little noise being made by Democrats on the Bush era tax cuts benefiting upper income taxpayers. In fact, the discussion has already moved beyond a debate on what we need to how we cut without any regard to the long-term consequences. Though the nation is being drowned in red ink by two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little discussion on ending those engagements or raising taxes to pay for the tab.
Neither is there a serious debate on how to cutback on defense spending to more effectively secure the nation in the post 9/11 era and discontinue costly weapons systems that may have outlived their usefulness. Given the magnitude of defense expenditures and the long-term commitment that is required to support development, testing and deployment; it is the one area of the federal budget where significant savings can be realized. Though Republicans talk tough on spending cuts, there is little enthusiasm for curbing defense spending as it betrays the party’s public persona of patriotism, bravado and military might. Democrats, for their part, can’t seem to muster the energy or vision to rally their troops to advocate for cuts in defense spending despite the fact that it is their constituents that are really feeling the brunt of the economic downturn in distressed cities and states across the nation.
The budget shortfalls in many cities for public education, police and fire protection, and road maintenance pales in comparison to the price tag for military weapons. In fact, the cost of some weapons systems could virtually cover the deficits of the public school systems in urban America. The comparison provides more than just a political juxtaposition of the relative strength of the military against ordinary citizens; it is a clear example of political priorities. Despite the rhetoric of lawmakers stressing the need for high-quality education, hailing the bravery of local law enforcement, firefighters and emergency responders, and decrying the nation’s decaying infrastructure, the words do not translate into budgetary priorities. Instead, the nation pays for another aircraft carrier, jet fighter, weapons system or rugged terrain vehicle that may or may not protect our troops or our nation.
So, what are we spending our tax dollars on by way of military machinery? And, could we possible do without some of it to make certain that American children receive a solid education and that our states are given assistance to repair their infrastructure, retool their economies for the 21st century, and provide a pathway to financial security for those individuals currently living at the margins? To his credit, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is examining his budget and attempting to retrofit Department of Defense spending by making cuts to programs and weapons; though the Secretary is the first to acknowledge the uncertainty of today’s environment and the necessity to make military preparedness and response a priority. The stakes are even higher now with conflicts seemingly breaking across the world, and armed conflict in several key countries in Africa and the Middle East.
An example of a “big ticket” item is the F-22 Raptor; the military’s most advanced fighter aircraft. Secretary Gates has ordered its production to end this year, capping the fleet at 187, far short of the 750 military planners envisioned. Each F-22 cost approximately $160 million, plus development costs that practically double that amount per aircraft. Multiply that by 187 and you begin to get the picture. Then there is the stealth F-35 Joint Strike fighter, an aircraft that might be the largest single defense program in history with estimates close to $350 billion for three different variants of the aircraft. The F-35 is to replace several aging military fighter jets. Each jet is now projected to cost approximately $112 million and the military has an order for 2,443 from defense contractor Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. The cost of the F-35 program will likely rise through the development phase of the aircraft. It is a common occurrence in military procurement. One thing that drives the cost of weapons is the varying tactical requirements of the different branches of the military. In this case separate models for the Air Force, Marines and Navy. While the cost of the F-35 program is staggering, the B-2 stealth bomber cost $2 billion each and there was to be a fleet of 132 aircraft but only 20 were built.
The Virginia-class attack submarine is slated to replace the outmoded Los Angeles and Seawolf series, of which only three were built of the latter. The new submarine is designed to be a cheaper vessel than its predecessors, costing about $1.8 billion each compared to the almost $3 billion price tag for each Seawolf class submarine. There are currently 18 submarines approved for production, with plans to increase the order. A total of 30 Virginia-class submarines are planned for the fleet. The Nimitz-class nuclear powered submarine is the super carrier of the United States Navy. There are currently ten in the fleet and they are the largest ships in the world, at just under 1,100 feet in length. The earliest ships in the Nimitz series cost approximately $4.5 billion each but the George W. Bush came in at $6.2 billion because new technologies were incorporated in its design. These ships will also bear a hefty price tag to decommission, as they are scheduled to be replaced by the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier fleet. Since the Nimitz fleet is nuclear powered, it will cost approximately $900 million per ship to take them out of service due to the cost to safely dispose of their nuclear power plants and radioactive material. Total defense spending, including for non-Department of Defense functions, represents about 38% of all expenditures in the federal budget. Our military budget is six times that of China.
A May 2009 Pew Charitable Trust report examined the growing budget crises in American cities, examining how Philadelphia and other major cities were coping with growing deficits. At the time of the report’s release, the one-year budget gaps ranged from almost $7 billion for New York City to $428 million for Philadelphia. The consequence of these shortfalls was significant. Plans to address municipal budget gaps included layoffs of city workers, including police and firefighters, library closures, the elimination of recreation programs, and raising fees for programs, including those that serve children, youth and the elderly. The report notes that the city of Atlanta reduced recycling from weekly to twice-monthly, Phoenix reduced Sunday hours at library branches, and four cities in the study - Baltimore, Atlanta, Phoenix and Columbus - closed recreation centers. Since the release of the report, things have only deteriorated further as some cities, such as Camden, New Jersey where about half the police force has been laid off, have taken drastic steps to balance budgets. While all of these measures are legitimate ways to close budget gaps, the overall impact of these cuts weighs heavily on the quality of life in communities and the total savings yielded offer a real comparison against the depth of defense spending and 40% of arms spending worldwide.
Meanwhile, defense spending looms large as the nation continues to pay a steep price for its superpower status that might have diminishing returns in a new era of global engagement. Despite the billions of dollars in annual defense appropriations, and the trillions that have been spent on two wars, there is little public debate on the value of military expenditures versus investments in domestic programs aimed at improving public education, improving economic conditions, finding real solutions to poverty and improving the overall quality of life for Americans. While most Americans express support for efforts to address many of the aforementioned concerns, the public is relatively ignorant of the minutia of the federal budget. Criticism of military spending is countered by a well oiled and connected defense industry that effectively pressures members of Congress to support weapons procurement on the basis of jobs created in congressional districts. It is not a false claim, but it does represent a false choice - weapons production or no jobs - that has cost the nation billions because there is no meaningful public engagement on the question of our national security and other policy priorities. As a result, budget hearings on Capitol Hill are dominated by Defense Department personnel, pro-military members of Congress and defense contractors.
With a government shutdown looming as a possibility if there is no agreement between the parties on spending priorities, the time may have arrived for everything - including military spending - to be on the table. For the first time in the memory of most Americans, the “pain” is being felt at home as services are cut in local communities, home foreclosures and job losses continue, and taxpayers are being squeezed by an onslaught of “nickel and dime” fees as municipalities and states seek new ways to stay afloat. The rising tide of red ink in local communities may finally propel defense spending as a point of public debate in the current budget negotiations.