The Unified Security Budget: Getting the Most Bang for Our National Security Buck

Here's something you don't hear every day--a Secretary of Defense talking about reducing military spending. Yet Secretary Robert Gates has recently discussed the possibility of eliminating some weapons systems, command structures and other items which are no longer necessary for national security.

According to Miriam Pemberton, a principle author of a newly released report on our nation's security budget, Gates has proposed to "mount the most serious effort to restrain his own budget of any Defense Secretary since the post-Cold War period." Whether these plans are aspirational or will actually be achieved is another story.

While this is noteworthy, it brings up another question: where would the money go? If dollars previously spent on certain military projects are simply shifted to other Defense department programs, is the U.S. really going to be any safer as a result?

This is where the idea of a Unified Security Budget comes in which considers all such spending in one place. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in addition to the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have all agreed that this idea makes sense.

The newly released 2010 report of the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget takes a combined look at all of our national security needs, from offensive military spending to preventative diplomacy. Following the recommendations of the Task Force as laid out in this report, we could shave $75 billion off of military spending this year alone, while making sure our money is being spent in a smarter way.

It's no secret that the U.S. spends a lot of money on defense. For the upcoming Fiscal Year 2011, the projected federal budget for national security is $852 billion, a number which includes defense, prevention, and all international affairs budget totals.

It also may not surprise many people to know that the vast majority of this money is targeted to the Defense Department for military spending. Out of this $852 billion total, a mere $65 billion is designated for the entire non-military International Affairs budget. Breaking things down further, only $3 billion is allotted for non-proliferation purposes. Clearly, something is out of whack here.

America needs a new way of assessing our national security spending. We have to start looking at national security funding as a whole, rather than viewing it piecemeal in the form of separate budgets for agencies such as the Defense and State departments. We need to take a longer view of where this money is going, and how our national security dollars can be spent in the most effective manner.

Secretary Clinton recently remarked that a Unified Security Budget would mean that "you can see the tradeoffs" between military and non-military security spending. She added that, "You cannot look at a Defense budget, a State Department budget, and a USAID budget without Defense overwhelming the combined efforts of the other two."

Indeed. A quick comparison of national security budget figures shows that spending on the military outnumbers spending on prevention-related activities by an astonishing 6 to 1 ratio. But this obvious gap isn't always so obvious when Congress and the Administration make their budgetary plans, because the current budget system separates funding for military and non-military national security spending into separate "silos," without comparing how much is spent and without being able to easily transfer any cost savings in one agency to another (i.e. from the Defense Department to the State Department).

It's hard, as a result, to see how the U.S. can get the best bang for its national security buck. A Unified Security Budget would solve this problem, and give Congress and the Administration a simplified tool to work off of when making their national security budget plans.

William Hartung, who served with me on the USB task force, asks these questions to put this into perspective:

"What makes more sense? Spending billions on unproven Star Wars anti-missile systems or increasing funds needed to secure "loose nukes" and bomb-making materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists?

What makes more sense? Building another C-17 transport plane that even the Pentagon doesn't want, or adding over 1,000 new Foreign Service Officers to our understaffed diplomatic corps?

What makes more sense? Spending billions on the dangerous and unneeded V-22 Osprey aircraft or doubling U.S. support for peacekeeping operations designed to keep conflicts from restarting in areas of tension?


This integrated approach to national security spending should be adopted, and the sooner the better. Smarter security spending will benefit everyone, but we need to be able to see clearly where all of our money is going before we can truly get the most bang for our security buck.