01/27/2016 03:48 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2017

Five Things Heritage Gets Wrong About Pentagon Spending

The Heritage Foundation has asserted that Americans deserve an "honest debate" about the costs of national security. I couldn't agree more.

In a piece that ran earlier this week in the National Interest, Heritage analyst Justin T. Johnson puts forward what in his view are "5 Bad Arguments For Cutting U.S. Defense Spending." But Johnson deploys some bad arguments of his own. I will focus on five of them.

America's Ability to Defend Itself and Its Interests Is "Marginal"

It's hard to believe that any serious assessment of U.S. military power could come to the conclusion that the United States' ability to protect itself and its interests is "marginal." Yet that is exactly what Mr. Johnson does.

The United States has the best-trained, best-equipped military in the world. The problem is that many of the most urgent threats we face are not amenable to military solutions. We need a better strategy, not a larger, more expensive military.

It is important to note that in those areas where military force is being used, the costs are a relatively small part of the Pentagon's $600 billion-plus budget.

For example, expenditures on Operation Inherent Resolve - the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria -- are slated to be less than $6 billion this year, or one percent of the Pentagon's total resources. The budget for the war in Afghanistan comes in at $42 billion, well under 10% of the Pentagon's total resources. Pentagon officials will no doubt point out that these conflicts generate indirect costs, but they have never documented those costs in any meaningful way. Either the wars against ISIS and in Afghanistan are costing more than the Pentagon is acknowledging, or -- far more likely -- the Department of Defense spends the vast bulk of its budget on items unrelated to current wars. So the next time you hear that we need to boost the Pentagon budget to fight ISIS, hang on to your wallet.

In the mean time, there are large swaths of the Pentagon budget that are useless in addressing current threats. This is certainly true of the dangerous, costly plan to spend $1 trillion modernizing and sustaining the nuclear triad over the next three decades. And an August 2015 analysis by the National Security Network demonstrates that the F-35 -- the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon -- is an under-performing, overpriced aircraft that is ill suited to the wide variety of missions it is being asked to perform.

Part of any new strategy must involve recognizing the limits of military power, and the need to invest in civilian activities like diplomacy and economic assistance that can help prevent conflicts from occurring in the first place. The United States may be able to do a better job of defending its people and its interests, but it needs the right mix of tools to do the job.

It Doesn't Matter How Much the U.S. Spends on Its Military Compared to Other Countries

Johnson dismisses the fact that the United States spends more on its military than the next seven nations combined as mere "click bait" that has no place in a serious argument about how much to spend on defense. On one level Johnson has it right -- defense spending should be tied to an assessment of defense needs, not a particular number. But spending levels do put important questions on the table. If the U.S. spends so much relative to the rest of the world, are our allies paying their fare share for dealing with emerging security challenges? Are the relatively large sums being spent by the United States being spent efficiently and effectively? Is it really possible to spend this much money and have capabilities that are merely marginal, as Mr. Johnson asserts?

We Have Our Smallest Army Since 1940

Bean counting about how U.S. forces are smaller now than they were in completely different eras that posed completely different challenges is misleading and irrelevant. Today's Army is far better trained and equipped than it was in 1940. And it is more than adequate in size and capability to deal with the most likely challenges on the horizon. Unless Mr. Johnson is suggesting that we build our defense strategy around fighting a large-scale ground war in Europe or fighting two Iraq-style wars with no allies, there is no need for a larger Army.

Pentagon Spending Is Not a Significant Contributor to the National Debt

Johnson implies that Pentagon spending plays no significant role in running up the national debt. But a program that accounts for more than half of all discretionary spending cannot be overlooked in crafting a responsible package of revenues and expenditures that promotes economic growth and increases the strength and resilience of the American economy, which is the ultimate foundation of U.S. security. There are tens of billions of dollars of wasteful and misguided expenditures within the Pentagon budget that could be put to better use, either in reducing the deficit or investing in critical domestic needs like education, infrastructure, and environmental protection. The Pentagon - which is the only federal agency that can't pass an audit - should not be given a free ride when it comes to setting budget priorities.

The Increases in Pentagon Spending Since 9/11 Have Been Insufficient

In 2011, the United States had the highest level of military spending since World War II - higher than during the Korean or Vietnam Wars, and higher than during the Cold War nuclear buildup. Those numbers have come down since then, driven by a combination of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. But Congress and the president have raised the budget caps twice, and the Pentagon has used the war budget, which is not subject to caps, to pay for all manner of projects that have nothing to do with current conflicts. The budget signed by the president in December provided $607 billion in Pentagon spending, and billions more for work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy. That's more than the U.S. spent on defense at the height of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, when it faced a superpower adversary, the Soviet Union.

So, the current Pentagon budget is relatively high by historical standards. And, as noted above, only a small portion of it is being used to fight the two current wars, against ISIS and in Afghanistan. And we are already far outspending larger powers like Russia and China. A direct, major conflict with either of these powers is unthinkable; and it's not clear that greater "presence" -- either via more ships operating in the waters near China or more troops in Europe -- would have a major impact on the strategic calculus of either nation. Other measures -- such as more military assistance to allies in Europe and Asia -- are relatively modest in cost in the context of a $600 billion-plus budget. Add to this the fact that regional allies should be carrying more of the burden in dealing with the perceived threats in their areas, and it is ultimately up to the advocates of spending more on the Pentagon to explain why giving it more money now will bring us more security.