Background Guide: Defense



The U.S. spends many times more on defense than any other nation in the world.

But gridlock in Washington has resulted in the “sequester,” triggering a series of automatic defense spending cuts. Many Americans are fatigued by a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the once-sacred defense budget hits the fiscal chopping block, the Pentagon has ordered a more streamlined military, emphasizing computer-guided missiles over boots-on-the-ground.

But the new military must continue its stand against terrorism, while also tackling new threats like cyber-war and electronic espionage.

A decade of war

After a decade of fighting and the loss of 6,500 American lives, the public has grown weary of the U.S. mission in Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

These wars have racked up a $1.5 trillion bill and it’s still not clear whether a ground war against insurgent forces is even winnable—outside of permanent military occupation.

Now, as a result of partisan gridlock and the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department’s budget—once a staggering $700 billion each year—is in decline for the first time since 1998. 

Pentagon officials have warned that further cuts will leave the military dangerously ill equipped, but some have seen this as an opportunity to do more with less. New defense technologies, from drones to cyberwarfare, are central to a leaner, “smarter” military.


In a search for new solutions, the Obama administration instead opted for drone strikes. Today, the U.S. currently possesses at least 8,000 drones in inventory, and another 12,000 on the ground. Their guided missiles have targeted hundreds of extremists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

Drones mean putting fewer Americans in harm’s way, are more “cost effective” and precise than putting boots on the ground, and give the U.S. a higher level of “plausible deniability.” Drone operators can conduct missions on U.S. soil, thousands of miles away from their target.

At the same time, thousands have also lost their lives to the powerful weapons. Some argue this has only made matters worse, inflaming anti-American sentiment and ensuring a state of perpetual war. As drones become more and more autonomous, new legal and moral quandaries will arise, from whom to blame when a machine goes awry to deeper questions regarding defining what “war” is.

Cyber and other game changers

Drones aren’t the only “game changer” in the world of defense technology. They have no effect on the newest battleground for American security: cyberspace. In 2013, the U.S. accused China of hacking into the Department of Defense—just one of many cyber assaults to hit the nation in recent years.

In addition to cyber, the Pentagon must keep up with such rapidly proliferating technologies as Direct Digital Manufacturing (or “3D” printing), directed energy systems (“lasers”) and “Human Performance Modification” technologies that can improve a soldier’s mental and physical capabilities. 

Policy Options

Going forward, the challenge the Defense department faces is spending less money more wisely.

The military has stockpiles of weapons systems due to be decommissioned. There are overseas bases that serve little use for today’s battles. And some have suggested eliminating tens of thousands of civilian jobs in the Pentagon. 

Critics have also targeted the surplus of military brass, arguing the top-heavy military could benefit from losing some of its generals and senior staff.

Then there is the vast bureaucracy of intelligence gathering departments: the CIA, the FBI, the National Counter-Terrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security. Shrinking these units, while making them more integrated and efficient, may be the key to keeping America safe on a budget.

After a decade of war, President Obama has said he is ready to bring the troops home. But keeping Americans safe while he does it is a tall order. How the military navigates the icy waters of deficit reduction may determine whether or not he succeeds.


Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense

Robert Gates, Former Secretary of Defense

John Brennan,  Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and former chief counterterrorism advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama 

Abraham Karem, Designer of the Predator drone, former chief designer for the Israeli Air Force 

William McRaven,  U.S. Navy admiral, and Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command 

Andrew Marshall, Foreign policy strategist, director of the United States Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment

Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action

Richard K. Betts, Adjunct Senior Fellow for National Security Studies

Quick Facts

In terms of number of employees, the Department of Homeland Security is the third largest U.S. government department after Defense and Veteran Affairs.

The United States Department of Defense is the nation’s biggest employers with 1.4 million soldiers on active duty and 718,000 civilian employees.

War funding is projected to come to $96 billion in fiscal year 2013, but it is likely to decline thereafter with the winding down of the war in Afghanistan.

The president’s 2013 budget requests $728 billion in military spending. If this were used as the base line, sequestration would mean a 7.5 percent reduction in military spending from the president’s requested level in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013.

Between 2001 and 2012, the active duty military grew 3.4% while the number of civilian defense employees grew by 17%.

Throughout the Global War on Terror, the number of U.S. Special Forces has doubled and they now have seventy generals in the ranks compared to nine in 2001.

Troop levels are projected to decline a further 28 percent in 2013.

In a Foreign Affairs study, only 20 of 124 active rival states, defined as the most conflict-prone states, engaged in cyber warfare against each other.

On July 10, 2013 an unmanned drone successfully landed on an aircraft carrier suggesting a new reach for the U.S. Navy.

China’s military spending in 2013 is set to rise to $119 billion, a 10.7% rise from the previous year, although still significantly less than the $940.7 billion the United States is expected to spend.

According to the New America Foundation, drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 2780 people as of June 8, 2013. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, instead, estimates a range between 2,548 and 3,549 as of July 2013.

The Pentagon’s furloughs, which began on Monday July 8, 2013. will result in a 20% weekly pay cut for 680,000 civilian employees throughout an eleven weeks period.