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Opinion: Headlines distract from the real issue of military spending

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Articles, debates and advertisements are among many other forums of modern communication that push the debate over military spending in the wrong directions. The pentagon is sinking $10 billion into a missile defense program that has little applicable use in national defense. The Los Angeles Times has covered this story as a classic showcase of wasteful government spending. Buzz media headlines like this make it difficult for Americans to garner a real understanding of the American military complex.

The LA Times and other news outlets divide Americans over the issue of defense spending by showcasing ‘wasteful’ spending programs. The two big parties (Republicans, Democrats) can then duke it out in the usual ways like clockwork— debating “we need more”, or “less spending.” In reality, both parties spend, from the average economic perspective, an immense amount of money. The issue between the parties is often where the money goes.

The recent spin on the same old debate is the pentagon’s failing, new missile defense program on the west coast, the Sea-Based-X-Band-Radar (SBX).  A floating defense system, SBX was designed to be operational by 2005 but is proving to be a money pit several billion dollars deep in 2015.

In truth, it looks like the giant floating radar has been a huge flop. In addition to having too narrow a scope (only 25 degrees wide compared  to 90-120 degrees for conventional radars), the SBX is costly to operate, difficult to operate and unable to reliably distinguish real missiles from decoys. In the early years of the George W. Bush administration, there must have been pressure to live up to the Reagan administration’s own failure in missile defense programs—The Star Wars program or Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SBX and SDI are only a little over a decade apart after all. SDI tried it in space, SBX on sea.

The bureaucratic failures that lead to program failures are hard to ignore in The LA Times article. Yet they should be a given when government defense bills and contracts are all drafted in the same yacht, cigar and scotch clubs.

Headlines may even treat bureaucratic inefficiencies as pivotal in the failure of programs. These stories drive our debates about military spending, when the present issue is an institutional failure. When it comes down to it, programs should be lightly judged based on failures or success. Innovation requires risk-taking—and risks will inevitably lead to short-term experimental failures.

Even with proper institutional checks, governmental transparency and highly functioning markets in the defense sector, failures should be expected in programs.

Headlines change public perspective on the national defense budget without noting this expectation. It does not matter which way these headlines change the direction of public policy because they drive an unhealthy partisan debate. Defense budgeting cannot be based on failure and success, but national aims.

The actual budget of the Department of Defense (DOD) in 2013 was $496 billion, according to the DOD budget request overview. If $496 billion just seems like a number, one can look at overall U.S. military spending on a global scale for context.  In 2012 NBC remarked that the U.S. spent more on defense than did the next ten biggest defense spenders combined. If Americans really want to be able to spend enough money to fight actual star wars, then their aims should surpass the next ten countries combined. If not, the budgeting board needs to be redrawn.

The failure of certain programs is not the issue here. Failures are almost reassuring if they occur while so much money is being spent on defense. When taxpayers put together that much money for a cause, the “go for it” message should be clear on what to do with the spending.

People should be aware of the relative strength of American military. An article which uncovers the latest of the Pentagon’s failed projects will only send the fiscally concerned one way, and the defense concerned citizens in opposite thinking directions. Once people become entrenched in their completely polarized political principles, constructive debate ceases.

If they both knew that defense spending was taking place on such a daunting scale first, and that progress is funded greatly by the military industrial complex and risk taking, they might both rationally engage the case of defense spending. It is hard to have the constructive debate about military spending, which includes the discussing of how the U.S. has spent overwhelming amounts of money on the military.  Too many people are blinded by their typical views and either want more or less spending, irrespective of how much the country actually spends.

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