Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, likely has done more to energize the defense strategy and spending debate with two oft-quoted remarks than most of the reams of analysis dedicated to the issue.
Last August he told the Detroit Economic Club that “I think the single-biggest threat to our national security is our debt.” Then, in January Pentagon press conference, he remarked that the Defense Department’s “budget has basically doubled in the last decade. And my own experience here is in that doubling, we've lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades.”
Given the bureaucratic turf at stake, it wasn’t clear whether Mullen meant to create the buzz that ensued or if he was surprised by it. That question was answered Sunday when Mullen reiterated both points in an interview aired on This Week in Defense News.
So what makes Mullen so adamant? Debates are raging on the responsibility of defense spending in creating this crisis, the role it should play in getting us out of it, and the meaning of the platitude that strong defense must be founded on a strong economy. But part of Mullen’s inspiration seems to be the outright scale of the problem.
The Congressional Budget Office released its 2011 version of the Long-Term Budget Outlook on June 22. Its simplest conclusion, per the chart below, is that debt will equal GDP within a decade according to the most plausible policy scenario. To put that in context, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Rivlin-Domenici Debt Reduction Panel concluded that a debt-to-GDP ratio of 60% “is consistent with globally recognized standards for fiscal stability.”
All of the various defense spending debates are important and should be had. Just taking a look at the fiscal data, though, is enough to explain why deans of national security budgeting, like Admiral Mullen and our own Dr. Gordon Adams, are asserting that “our central national security crisis today is our looming federal debt and annual deficits. All ingredients of national security spending and revenues must be on the table for our deficits to be brought under control and our debt to be stabilized.”