What could we do with $700 billion?

The Baltimore Sun

This month, there was another parliamentary parlor game in Congress over the Iraq war. The occasion was the debate over the 2008 defense budget, which offered opponents of the war the opportunity to offer amendments for withdrawal timetables.

But intentionally lost in the debate was a larger discussion of the budget itself.

Before adjourning for the Columbus Day holiday, the Senate quietly passed a $460 billion defense appropriations bill. Add to this figure the nearly $200 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - and the cost of nuclear weapons activities in the energy bill - and we're talking about $700 billion for defense.

These are staggering numbers. The defense budget represents more than half of all discretionary spending.

Even without the money for Iraq, the nearly $500 billion budget represents a historic high for defense spending - almost two decades after the end of the Cold War.

But what about the war on terror? Certainly, the current defense budget traces its roots to the flood of defense spending after the terrorist attacks. But considering what some of this money is buying, it's no wonder we don't feel safer.

How does spending $4.6 billion this year on the F-22 Raptor, a supersonic stealth fighter jet, help us beat al-Qaida in Iraq? This plane was conceived in the Cold War to fight Soviet planes that were never built, yet it remains the crown jewel for the Air Force. Why does the Navy need $3.6 billion to build the DDG-1000 stealth destroyer? As a career naval officer, I racked my brains to find a satisfactory answer. It may be just to keep General Dynamics' Bath Iron Works up and running after it delivers the final $1 billion Burke-class destroyer in 2011.

But take a moment to consider what this money could buy.

We are in the midst of a political skirmish over the renewal of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, a fight that boils down to a difference of $30 billion to provide health insurance to children.

Add up the potential savings from cutting unnecessary weapons systems such as the F-22 and the DDG-1000, which would yield $8.2 billion without any new taxes, and President Bush's veto of SCHIP looks that much more ridiculous.

And what about the $8.5 billion that we're planning to spend on missile defense next year? This program will likely never work and has consumed $160 billion over its 24-year life span.

These numbers are mere rounding errors in the context of the $700 billion we'll spend on defense in a single year.

One has to wonder: If politicians weren't so terrified to look weak on defense, would $700 billion have received more attention than just a footnote in the Iraq debate?

If we spent this kind of money on the Department of Education, I guarantee that Bill O'Reilly would be devoting entire segments on his show to this wasteful spending and government largess.

I spent my life in the military, worked with some of the finest men and women in uniform and benefited from the best military technology in the history of the world. But I understand that our national security involves far more than unrealistic defense spending. I also know firsthand how a military bureaucracy will demand more and more resources at the expense of other priorities.

There will always be a fancier fighter plane or a sleeker ship. But how many more hundreds of billions of dollars will it take before we step back and say, "Enough"?

When the presidential candidates are trying to explain how they can pay for their plans to provide health care, repair our roads and bridges, or get us off our addiction to oil, let's remind them that the Pentagon could spare a lot of cash. There's just no reason for the Pentagon to remain a sacred cow that no major candidate will dare touch.

Jack Shanahan, head of the Military Advisory Committee of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, is former commander of the U.S. Second Fleet. His e-mail is vadmjack@aol.com.

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