Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Imaginative Bankruptcy
The Ideological Void of Defense Policy

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, May 2, 2000 --  

Opponents of an American missile defense system have found new ammunition in a congressional report estimating costs nearly twice as high as Pentagon estimates. The numbers in the Congressional Budget Office paper are indeed intimidating -- the cost to deploy and run a limited national missile defense system through 2015 would be $49 billion.1

This more expensive estimate is still limited to obstacles known today. Final costs will likely be much higher -- perhaps many times so -- especially when costs of retrofitting the system to defeat countermeasures that easily could be deployed on existing threatening missiles. Given such a high cost for a system that may never work, it would seem to be an easy decision to avoid the program now.

Is there a better way for the government to spend money defending Americans? Some people think so. If you believe the Clinton administration, the National Security Council should direct its efforts to fighting AIDS in Africa.2 (No joke.) Setting such ridiculous priorities for the United States' defense strategy shows just how imaginatively bankrupt the current administration has become.*

This year's U.S. defense budget is $268 billion3. Of this, $170 billion4 is spent maintaining an outrageously large standing army -- combined forces totaled 1.4 million in 1998.5 A good portion of the $536 billion annual procurement budget is for weapons systems used to help other countries fight regional conflicts away from our shores -- systems such as C-130 transports and long range B-2 bombers. It is only in the remaining large defense budget chunk -- the $34 billion7 annually allocated to research and development -- that we can even begin to find worthwhile spending.

The annual defense budget could easily be pared down by $100 billion or more before it would even begin to affect the actual security interests of everyday Americans. Shockingly, though, few people are actually considering cutting the budget. The Democratic administration's 2000 budget proposal called for a modest increase in defense spending, on top of which the Republican Congress packed on even more increases.

It is only in the context of this huge waste that the argument over the cost of the National Missile Defense program can be fully appreciated. Under the latest CBO estimates, spending on the project will peak at a bit under $7 billion per year in 2008. That's just a drop in the bucket compared to the $268 billion defense budget, which contains at least $100 billion of non-defense-oriented waste.

If there were even the slightest chance that the United States would radically pare down the outrageously large Pentagon budget, the case might be made that $2-$7 billion per year is a lot of money. But as long as the U.S. defense budget is so huge, the cost argument against a missile defense just doesn't fly.

This is even more the case when alternative ideas for spending defense dollars are so scarce that they lead to silly suggestions like targeting AIDS in Africa. Until somebody has a better idea, the National Missile Defense Project is clearly the best way to go.

* The African AIDS crisis is indeed severe. Over 25 percent of some countries' populations are infected with HIV8 This unquestionably means greater donations from the West are called for, but it doesn't have anything to do with America's national defense. The countries with high infection rates are so economically marginal that they are virtually irrelevant to American security interests. This is indeed a great humanitarian issue. It is simply now, however, a defense issue.

Related web columns:

America Undefended
The Waste of Intervening in Kosovo
, February 23, 1999

Brewpubs and Atom Bombs
Pick the Real Threat to American Security
, February 24, 1998

  1. Congressional Budget Office, Budgetary and Technical Implications of the Administration's Plan for National Missile Defense, April 2000
  2. Washington Post, Aids is Declared Threat to Security, April 30, 2000
  3. Congressional Budget Office, Fiscal Year 2000 House Current Status of Discretionary Appropriations, March 20, 2000
  4. Center for Defense Information, 2000 Budget Authority [Total of Personnel, O&M and Housing spending.]
  5. Defense Almanac, Total Active Duty Military, September 30, 1998
  6. Center for Defense Information, Ibid.
  7. Center for Defense Information, Ibid.
  8. Washington Post, Ibid.