NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Conflict Exposes Weaknesses In U.S. Defense

April 12, 1999

The war in Yugoslavia has exposed weaknesses in U.S. military capacity. Over the last generation, defense has been a steadily declining share of federal government outlays. In 1960, defense accounted for more than 50 percent of all federal spending. Last year it was a little over 16 percent.

Of course, some of the decline in defense as a share of federal spending is simply due to the vast expansion of non-defense spending. But even looking at defense as a share of the total economy also shows a sharp decline.

  • In 1960, defense accounted for 9.3 percent of the gross domestic product.
  • Last year it was down to just 3.2 percent.
  • Indeed, defense spending has fallen by 1.7 percent of GDP just since 1992, accounting for more than 30 percent of the fall in the federal budget deficit.

While no one denies that the Defense Department needed to shrink after the end of the Cold War, the war in Yugoslavia shows that the downsizing has not been well managed.

  • The Air Force is almost out of cruise missiles and must rely on B-52 bombers that are 40 years old to carry out its mission.
  • The Navy has been forced to scale-back operations in the Persian Gulf to carry out its responsibilities in Yugoslavia, because it has no excess capacity to spare.
  • Meanwhile, there is serious doubt that the Army could sustain a ground campaign in the Balkans for more than a few months without straining its already tight manpower beyond the break point.

At a minimum, billions of dollars in additional defense spending are going to be needed just to keep our defense capacity from deteriorating further. And if the Yugoslav conflict escalates, billions more will be needed.

Source: Bruce Bartlett, senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis, April 12, 1999.


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