Cutting Defense Won't Create More Jobs

With President Obama’s “jobs speech” now delivered to Congress, national attention is fixed more than ever on job creation. And with the unemployment rate above 9%, and the underemployed pushing the “real” jobless rate to over 16%, the stakes could hardly be higher.

But if job creation—and maintaining those jobs Americans do have—is our national focus, why is cutting the defense budget more deeply still on the table? The fact is that cutting defense spending on the scale being proposed under the debt-ceiling agreement will not appreciably help to fix the country’s long-term fiscal problem, will make the nation less secure and is, demonstrably, a terrible thing to do when the economy is struggling as it is.

The Obama administration has already cut $400 billion from the defense budget and, with Congress, has agreed to cut another $350 billion as part of deficit reduction efforts. Now, with the debt-ceiling agreement in place as law, should the “super committee” fail to reach a consensus on how to tackle the country’s longer term deficit problem, it is possible that defense spending could be cut by another $500-$600 billion over the next decade. This will have a significant and immediate impact on a critical part of America’s industrial base.

Consider what already has taken place. In 2009, the decision was made to end procurement of the F-22 stealth fighter at 187 planes—well below the number repeated Pentagon studies argued was necessary. In killing the program, tens of thousands of jobs associated with its production were lost.

Soon, the last of the C-17 cargo planes will roll out of its Southern California plant, with the loss of nearly 4,000 jobs there alone.

And there are thousands more jobs that have been lost and will be lost as the budget for building new capital ships for the Navy is capped or, worse, declines.

When Northrop Grumman made the decision to close down its Avondale, Louisiana shipyard in 2013, what was once the state’s largest employer will shut its gates and, in the process, put the last of its 5,000 workers on the street looking for jobs that probably won’t be there.

Since we don't know the full extent of the new defense budget cuts in prospect, it's impossible to be precise about the impact on future employment. However, one thing is clear: there will be further contractions in what remains of the defense industry. Indeed, the true procurement horror story of the last generation is the nation's failure to buy and field sufficient numbers of systems.

Much has been researched and developed, at staggering cost, but never brought into service in large numbers; that is, production lines were designed and built, but never fully manned. And the biggest failure may loom directly ahead with these coming cuts: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is intended to replace a number of current planes for the Marines, Navy and Air Force. Its production line is structured on a scale to produce up to 300 F-35s a year and employ tens of thousands directly and many more indirectly. But current Pentagon plans barely exceed a rate of 30 F-35s a year. In other words, the program has barely gotten off the ground, but the job layoffs could soon begin.

With an aging inventory of planes, ships and vehicles, added procurement monies to help recapitalize the armed services could generate thousands of high-paying jobs. In addition, added defense dollars could be targeted at refitting and refurbishing weapon systems and platforms worn out by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a task that has to be done in any case, so pushing forward the time to do it could not help but put more dollars back into a struggling economy. And since almost all of the equipment and supplies bought by the Pentagon is made in the United States, the stimulative effect is virtually 100% domestic and quite immediate in that most of the underlying industrial infrastructure already exists and is able to increase production rapidly.

Also problematic is the decision to cut back on the number of active duty soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen in the years ahead—a total likely to reach well over 100,000. With job growth being what it is, especially among the young and inexperienced, it is certainly a problem to eliminate one important avenue for employment that can tide young men and women over until the economy does turn around and, in addition, provide many of them with a level of training and a set of skills they would not otherwise have.

Another certain target is the defense civilian workforce, both direct government workers and the contractors who, over the last decade, have provided essential services for a nation at war and a military that, because of reductions in the 1990s, was too small to carry out the campaigns given it. While these cuts will be styled as “efficiencies,” the result is plain: even more job lost.

While the defense budget has increased over the past decade, it began from a very low starting point at the end of the Clinton years and most of the increase has gone toward paying for the wars and the extraordinary men and women who are fighting in them.

There has been no Pentagon shopping spree when it comes to replacing the legacy ships, planes and vehicles bought during the Reagan years. Equally important, the United States is still dealing with a set of security concerns in the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia that, if anything, will grow more difficult in the years ahead. In short, cutting defense not only makes little sense when it comes to jobs, it makes even less sense when it comes to dealing effectively with the threats we still face.

Gary Schmitt is director the American Enterprise Institute’s program on advanced strategic studies and Thomas Donnelly is director of AEI’s center for defense studies.