In a perfect world, the defense budgeting process would look like this:
1. Identify likely threats
2. Identify the most effective means needed to deal with those threats
3. Figure out how much those means will cost
4. Budget appropriately
Of course, that’s a perfect world – in the real world you have entrenched interests at every level of the decision making process, from the defense industry to Congressmen to the individual service branches desperate to carve out their piece of the pie. It’s essentially impossible to come to a consensus on what the most likely threats are, and even harder to agree on the best way of dealing with them.
But still, the defense budget needs to be rooted in strategy – not the other way around. Which is why Mitt Romney’s recent call to fix the defense budget at 4% of GDP is silly. I understand that he’s trying to promote himself as a defense hawk, and trying to say that his plan would put the military budget under lock and key, but in reality he’d just be opening the flood gates for pork projects and wasteful spending. As it stands, the military has to actually justify its spending – if it wants to buy a new airplane, it has to convince Congress that there’s a threat that justifies a new airplane, and that the new airplane is the best way to deal with that threat.
If the budget is fixed, that goes away – the Pentagon knows it’s getting the money, one way or another, so even the thin veneer of legitimate strategic thought is eliminated. I don’t have a problem with calls to raise the defense budget – in particular when it comes to ship building, we are a facing a grim decade and a half or so. But to say that we need to change the budget from a threat-means-cost model to a “Here’s your allowance” model is just crazy.