Defense spending as stimulus

The Baltimore Sun

As our economic situation deteriorates and the demand for the federal government to pump large sums of money into the economy escalates, there will be increasing calls to use defense spending as a stimulus. Given the size of the defense budget and its consequent impact on the economy, this is understandable. In fiscal year 2009, the Department of Defense will spend nearly $700 billion, more than what the rest of the world combined spends on defense.

Increased spending on defense should be part of a stimulus package, but there is a wrong way and a right way to do it. The wrong way is to ask Congress to spend money on weapons that are not needed. For example, two of the four largest defense contractors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have been pouring money into a publicity campaign and stepping up congressional lobbying efforts to maintain funding for an unnecessary and expensive program: the Air Force's F-22 Raptor.

The right way to use defense spending to stimulate economic growth, while simultaneously enhancing our national security, is to accelerate defense spending in the next two years for items that would have to be purchased eventually. Analysis of the defense budget shows that there are three areas where this can be done: personnel, military construction and equipment "reset."

* Personnel. The Army and Marine Corps plan to add 48,000 troops over the next four years, at a rate of 12,000 per year. These troops are sorely needed to relieve the strains on our overstretched active and reserve ground troops. But with youth unemployment so high, this is an ideal time to add all 48,000. It would cost an additional $5 billion in fiscal year 2010 and provide employment for 36,000 more young men and women.

* Construction. The Department of Defense has a backlog of about $50 billion in needed but unfunded military construction projects. About half of this money has been authorized; the other half will be requested over the next five years. Accelerating these projects would not only provide jobs to the hard-hit construction industry, where unemployment is more than 15 percent and growing, but also improve the living and working conditions for military personnel and their families. It would also improve the energy efficiency of military facilities more quickly and accelerate environmental remediation efforts at closed or abandoned bases, so that they can be turned over to productive use by the civilian sector.

* Equipment. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been particularly hard on military equipment. As a result of combat and the harsh conditions in those theaters, the supply of battle-ready essential equipment, especially tanks, trucks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees, has been depleted. Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, has estimated the cost of repairing, rebuilding and replacing this equipment, a process known as "reset," at $100 billion.

Adding $50 billion to the budget over the next two years for reset would provide employment opportunities to people like machinists and mechanics in states such as Texas, California and Pennsylvania, and would improve military readiness more quickly.

Taking these steps would add about $100 billion to the defense budget, to be spent in the near term - when it is most needed by our economy. Just as important, though, it would allow the defense budget to tail off sharply when the economic crisis passes and the Obama administration and the nation must face the challenge of getting the budget deficit under control in an era when baby boomers are beginning to retire.

Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His e-mail is lkorb@americanprogress.org. Matthew Merighi is a researcher at the center.

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