Obama’s defense cuts are just right

Wasteful Pentagon spending is something that most members of Congress would like to eliminate -- as long as the cuts are made in somebody else’s state. The problem the Obama administration faces as it seeks support for its defense budget is that pretty much everybody would feel some pain.

President Obama released his $534-billion military budget proposal weeks ago, but Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fleshed it out Monday by listing specific programs to be cut or expanded. The plan would increase spending by 4% over fiscal 2009, though judging from the reaction of congressional hawks, one would think the Pentagon were being gutted. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) commented in a blog post from Afghanistan that “President Obama is disarming America” and betraying our troops abroad. The fear-mongering won’t end there.

Still, the opposition in Congress has a lot more to do with money than with national security concerns. Defense contractors have spread their operations across the country, and program cuts mean lost jobs. On Monday, Gates announced that production of the F-22 would be halted at 187. That shouldn’t be too controversial given that only 183 were ordered, but components for the Lockheed fighter jet are built in 44 states, giving it a great deal of political support.

Gates also proposed scrapping new helicopters, next-generation armored vehicles for the Army and high-tech Navy vessels. At the same time, he would increase spending in other areas, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, F-35 fighter jets and special forces troops. The eminently sensible goal is to shift priorities to fighting insurgencies like those in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than continuing to pour money into systems intended for fighting conventional wars against great powers like Russia and China.

Gates and Obama hardly aim to disarm America, but there’s no question that they intend to buy less ammo. Given that the United States spends nearly as much on defense as every other country on Earth combined, that’s not a bad plan. In the late 1990s, defense spending was about 3% of the nation’s gross domestic product; today that number is closer to 4.5%. Whether that has made us safer is anybody’s guess, but there’s no question that it has made us poorer. And if being the world’s sole superpower isn’t enough of a deterrent against foreign attack, it’s unlikely that being the world’s sole super-duper power will either.

The Obama administration’s defense budget doesn’t please liberals looking for dramatic cuts or conservatives who want to continue the Bush administration’s rampant defense spending hikes. But in the balancing act between defense and other priorities, it’s just about right.