The 600-pound Gorilla: Why We Need a Smaller Defense Department

Ryan P. Allen, “The 600-pound Gorilla: Why We Need a Smaller Defense Department,” NDU Press, Jauary 2013.

The Defense Department is kept from being proportional to its actual role by organizational inertia and its size. Use of force, and the abundance of manpower and materiel that enable it, are traditional strengths, but the military is unsustainable at its present cost. Without a reduction, the Nation is weakened economically, and overreliance on the military has a corresponding effect on both U.S. status and on domestic regard for the military even as fewer Americans than ever have served or understand what the military does. Relying on the inherent goodness of man is insufficient; the U.S. Armed Forces must remain the most capable, but leaders must assess what is needed and the long-term effects of military responses and adjust accordingly.

While the 800-pound gorilla’s size is beneficial to him, it is unnecessarily large. The gorilla does not need that much mass when 700 or even 600 pounds would be enough weight and power to have its way in any situation and sit where it wants. One can say the same for the Department of Defense (DOD). The Department is too large, and a smaller DOD is in the best interest of the United States.

The current DOD is a liability in some respects, which runs counter to the security and stability that U.S. citizens expect. Of course, it provides the necessary national defense, but at its current size, it also comes with unintended effects. Overreliance on military force instead of utilization of other forms of national power is an unintended but natural result of an overly large and extremely capable organization. The DOD budget is too large to remain at its current level, and the amount that the U.S. Government spends on defense is unsustainable if the Nation wishes to regain economic viability. Finally, the excessive size of DOD results in strategic overreach, does not match realistic threat projections, and, ironically, weakens the United States over time.

An overreliance on the military aspect of national power tends to erode this international system, which is a stabilizing force in most cases. Military force is only one instrument of power and its overuse comes at the expense of the nation as a whole, weakening the potential impact of the other forms of power.

Diplomacy in the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union was unique, at times nonexistent, and usually combined heavily with military posturing. Indeed, the very appointment of some personalities, such as John Foster Dulles in the Eisenhower administration, ensured that diplomacy with the Soviets was not an option. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the United States cut the State Department budget by 20 percent, resulting in the closure of over 30 Embassies and consulates and elimination of 22 percent of the department’s employees. The cuts in the State Department resulted in increased operations for the Defense Department, and the missions were not always a good match.

The Defense Department chafed as the Clinton administration grew accustomed to using it to cover the types of missions that could have been better addressed through diplomacy. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell was seen as “obstructive” by the Clinton administration officials who wished to resolve the situation in Bosnia with military force. The situation resulted in the famous statement from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “What are you saving this superb military for . . . if we can’t use it?” This civilian tendency to use military force either without clear political goals or as a substitute for other implements of national power, which was embraced by both political parties, demonstrates the danger of maintaining an oversized military force. As long as there is a force large and capable enough at the disposal of the Government, there will be a temptation and tendency to use that force as a quick problem solver to get the desired outcome without the perceived uncertainty or compromise of diplomacy. To resolve this issue, it is imperative that the United States maintain a DOD sized and structured to respond only to true national security threats, and only after all other implements of national power are exhausted.

Defense amounts to 17 percent of Federal spending in the President’s 2013 budget proposal. The size of annual defense expenditures, to which the U.S. people have grown accustomed for the most part, are typically presented in such a way as to underemphasize the actual dollars being spent. For example, citing defense expenditures as a percentage of GDP is misleading in its own right. Americans would not think twice about paying 4 cents out of every dollar (as a percentage of GDP) for their security. Conversely, if Americans knew that 17 cents out of every dollar the government spends went to DOD, or 32 cents out of every dollar received in taxes, the reaction could be quite different.

Historically, the United States pays for its wars through a combination of tax increases, cuts in domestic program spending, and borrowing. The past decade has seen quite a different approach to paying for defense and war. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan mark the first time in U.S. history that the government cut taxes and did not cut nondefense spending while engaged in major wars.

A dangerous reality now faces Americans who are willing to look at the numbers: guns and butter and reduced revenue equal mountains of debt. How did the United States arrive at this point? A large part of the answer is that there is simply too much money involved in defense and too much influence over a Congress that naturally seeks constituent approval. The power of the purse held by Congress necessitates close ties with the defense industry where the appropriated money is spent. President Dwight Eisenhower publicly warned of the dangers of what has become widely known as the military-industrial complex. Privately though, and with more accuracy, Eisenhower included the Congress and labeled the relationship the “delta of power.”

The United States pays too much for too much defense capability and could spend significantly less and defend itself nearly as well. Politicians propose defense spending reductions with great trepidation if they are bold enough to propose them at all. A recent speech by President Barack Obama, for example, calls on Americans to understand that “we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next ten countries combined.” This is a clear demonstration of an inferiority complex thrust on the American people by Congress, DOD, and the defense industry: a call for ever-increasing defense spending based more on economic and political desires than on real-world threats to national security.

Historian and strategist Eliot Cohen notes that “inertia overwhelms the impulse to change at the Pentagon,” and “the military will resist transformation.” But the current situation calls for change nonetheless. The United States relies on military force, or the threat of force, because that is its strength. It is natural for a nation to play to its strengths in international relations, but it must do so with caution, and it must conduct an honest assessment of the results of the maintenance and use of that strength. U.S. policy currently relies too much on the military instrument of national power at the expense of the other instruments, and that appears likely to continue for the foreseeable future. This overreliance is a direct and natural result of an inflated DOD, and it weakens the U.S. position in the international community. Defense spending levels of the past decade are unsustainable, and they unnecessarily create vulnerabilities. Finally, the colossal size of DOD results in the use of military power without great hardship on the American people, thereby resulting in overuse and strategic overreach. These aspects of today’s DOD indicate a need to reduce its size in budget and manpower in the interest of maintaining the U.S. position in the 21st century.

The strongest approach for the future of DOD is to trim its size, creating a force that while smaller than the Cold War force remains the most capable in the world and one able to respond to realistic threats to national security. 

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