Budget Logic Points To Further Troop Cuts

Whether we get budget sequestration or some alternative in the new year, it’s pretty clear that military spending will continue drifting downward as our divided political system grapples with deficit reduction. Maybe that wouldn’t be so obvious if the nation were facing urgent threats, but the first lesson of the Petraeus Affair is that Washington isn’t real worried about threats right now. With 9-11 and Iraq having receded in the popular consciousness, politicians are much more likely to keep cutting the Pentagon than rein in entitlement spending or raise tax rates.

The question is which part of the Pentagon budget will get whacked the most. If the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act are implemented as currently written, then readiness and investment accounts take the hit while military personnel are exempted. The problem with that approach is the Obama Administration admits in its 2013 budget documents that it has already spent four years trimming weapons spending, so now it is time to look at other items like military benefits and bases for savings. Also, as Sara Sorcher and Meghan McCarthy point out in a November 16 analysis for National Journal, if sequestration as currently constructed hits readiness accounts, military healthcare spending could plummet over ten percent in a single year, because that’s where most of the healthcare funds are located in the Pentagon budget.

Cutting more weapons would undermine the future safety and success of the joint force. Cutting military healthcare by ten percent at a time when medical costs are rising fast would provoke a political firestorm. And trying to cut pay for military personnel could do both. What to do? It seems like the most feasible pathway out of this dilemma that could still yield sizable near-term savings would be to implement further reductions in the size of the force. So far, the Obama Administration’s proposed cuts in military headcount don’t go much beyond taking back the surge of ground forces required to execute campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. But with the administration’s new military strategy stressing things like unmanned aircraft, fewer overseas bases, and a smaller logistics footprint, now seems like the logical time to make additional cuts in the ranks.

Judging from a note that Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners put out today, Clark Murdock of the Center for Strategic and International Studies is already propounding such reasoning. If that’s so, then Murdock is right, because cuts in headcount would generate savings and slow the rise in military benefit costs without slashing compensation for the remaining troops or gutting the Pentagon’s investment plans. I’m sure that each service has a PowerPoint presentation contending that reductions in the active-duty force would be utterly devastating, but anyone who has watched the way the services squander uniformed personnel on unnecessary and even frivolous tasks knows that cuts in headcount are the next place where budget savings should be sought.