Washington. -- Six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Congress and the executive branch continue to approach defense spending as if it were Cold War business as usual. In 1996, the U.S. will spend about as much on defense as it did during the mid 1970s.
Far from pursuing a "peace dividend," neither congressional nor recent presidential proposals to balance the budget envision substantial reductions in U.S. military spending below average Cold War levels.
A bolder vision of our defense capabilities and needs is required. So far, President Clinton, Republican presidential hopefuls and both houses of Congress have been more willing to exploit the defense budget for partisan reasons than national-security needs. Two rhetorical bogeymen have helped block a serious discussion about long-term U.S. military spending goals.
The first, encouraged by congressional Republicans and abetted by the Pentagon, warns of a "demise of the defense budget." The numbers, however, tell a different story. Current U.S. defense spending is only about 10 percent below the average during the Cold War, which included U.S. involvement in two prolonged regional wars (Korea and Vietnam).
The 1995 defense budget of the Clinton administration is actually higher (taking inflation into account) than the 1975 budget under President Nixon. This year, the United States alone will spend almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, and five times more than any other nation in the world.
The second distortion concerns an assumed "readiness gap" in U.S. military forces. Because the imagery of being caught with our guard down is a politically powerful one, readiness has become a hot-button issue subject to easy manipulation by Congress and a Pentagon set on preserving its share of the federal budget.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, recently identified three Army divisions as "unready," but failed to note that two of the three were in the process of being demobilized. Other units with low routine training hours also rated poorly, but this was because they were involved in real military operations in the Persian Gulf and Haiti.
In truth, the United States now spends about $60,000 a year per active-duty person on readiness. This is actually 10 percent more than the cost of readiness per capita in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Last year, readiness funding increased by $5 billion while the defense budget decreased as a whole by 3 percent.
In addition to inaccurate representations of our own capabilities, the U.S. continues to spend enormous sums of money on expensive and exotic military systems that were designed to fight a now-defunct Cold War enemy. Two egregious examples are the funding proposals for a third Seawolf attack submarine (which the administration has priced at $2.4 billion), and keeping open the production line for the B-2 strategic bomber (at a construction cost of $1.4 billion). Both systems were developed to attack the now non-existent Soviet Union.
Moreover, U.S. forces are still strategically aligned to counter Soviet aggression. For example, the Navy continues to keep three carrier battle groups forward-deployed to combat Soviet Communist expansionism. The Army and Air Force keep 200,000 troops stationed in Europe and Asia. When a Haitian or Rwandan crisis erupts, these forces must take on these assignments as "extra tasks" for which they lack training and equipment.
Early in the Clinton administration, former Secretary of Defense Les Aspin commissioned a "Bottom Up Review" to rethink U.S. military strategy in a post-Cold War setting and to provide the forces needed to meet those missions.
The result was disappointing. What we got was a greatly exaggerated vision of the threats the United States faces today, reflecting Cold War patterns of thinking that are deeply ingrained in the Pentagon. The Bottom Up Review concluded that the United States needs to maintain the capability to conduct and win two simultaneous wars (e.g., in Korea and the Persian Gulf), with no build-up period for our forces, no allies to help and without the ability to rotate forces. Do we really anticipate fighting a second Korean war without the participation of South Korea's 650,000 man military?
The Bottom Up Review also can be faulted for superimposing the specter of Soviet might on small regional powers who are our enemies of today. According to the Pentagon, Iraq plus North Korea is equal to 85 percent of the Soviet Union.
The world today continues to be a dangerous place, placing large and legitimate demands on U.S. leadership and resources. However, it is incumbent upon the Congress, President Clinton and his Republican presidential challengers to assess military needs and capabilities without election-season polemics and with a sense of the real threats that we face in the post-Cold War era. If that were done, I am confident that our defense budget could be judiciously and greatly reduced without harming our position as the preeminent global military power.
Lawrence Korb, a staff member of the National Security Council in the Bush administration, is a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and a board director of the Committee on National Security.