Analysts are warning that the bipartisan deficit reduction deal could gut defense and undermine U.S. national security. No one disagrees over the math. Defense has already been tagged with over $800 billion in spending cuts since the Obama Administration took office. These include almost $400 billion in savings from program terminations and restructuring that were announced in 2009, another $78 billion in efficiency savings that the department was not allowed to retain and around $350 billion in cuts announced this past April (and confirmed in last week’s debt pact). It is unclear how much more the Pentagon will be asked to absorb in budget cuts in the second round of deficit reductions due out from a special Congressional Committee in the Fall. But if the automatic cuts built into the deficit bill are triggered, defense could face up to an additional $600 billion in losses. The effect of these cuts could be even more impactful because the deficit reduction agreement assumes a defense spending baseline that does not take inflation into account. The worst case scenario would have defense spending for fiscal year 2013 alone slashed by approximately $100 billion.
The incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the newly appointed senior leadership of the military made it clear in recent testimony to Congress that cuts of the magnitude lurking in the deficit cutting legislation will break the force. Put another way, one way of absorbing a $100 billion budget reduction is to eliminate a service. Or you could close half of the nation’s military bases.
There needs to be a defense-led argument for how to do deficit reduction without harming national security. How much can we afford to reduce defense without placing security fundamentally at risk? What kinds of cuts would cause more harm than they are worth? This is very different than the usual Pentagon response to budget cuts which is to figure out how to live with less. The trouble is that if DoD must absorb a trillion dollars in cuts this will not be possible. The Pentagon needs to draw a line in the sand. If Congress or the American people wish to cross that line, so be it. But DoD needs to make the consequences of such a decision for national security very clear.
Defense officials should start the argument by saying that defense is different from other expenditures and it was a mistake for the deficit deal to equate defense with other discretionary spending. Bluntly put, defense spending cuts can rapidly become a matter of life or death for our people in uniform as well as a danger to vital national interests. DoD officials like to speak of taking additional risk if defense spending is reduced too far. Risk is one of those Washington terms that is intended to obfuscate rather than clarify. Taking risk means accepting the fact that war is more likely and that more U.S. military personnel will be killed if conflict does occur. It’s the people in uniform alone who take the additional risk.
Also, DoD needs to make it clear that there are capabilities which, if eliminated now are all but irrecoverable should the need for them again arise. In some cases, the danger stems from the loss of critical industrial capabilities and talent. The U.S. can no longer build large rockets such as the Saturn Five that carried heavy payloads into space. Stretch out the construction of nuclear-powered ships and submarines and it is likely to be impossible to preserve the appropriate industrial base. In many instances key defense technology areas including tactical aircraft, armored fighting vehicles, jet engines and large airframes are down to two competitors. Eliminate modernization programs or major upgrades of existing systems and one or both of these is likely to exit the market.
Perhaps it is best to treat defense spending like an entitlement — a must pay bill, a responsibility that comes with sovereignty. As an entitlement, it requires a minimum sustainable level of peacetime spending, say on average four percent of GDP. There are a number of studies that demonstrate that for a military of the size, composition and activity level of that currently maintained by the United States, the minimum sustaining investment is four percent of GDP. Additional funding to support a major overseas contingency should be additive to this amount, providing an opportunity for Congress to exercise its judgment.
In this time of unusual stress on federal spending defense is an entitlement that can and should be reformed. Reform would include changes to defense health care, pensions, and personnel costs. Reform should also look to a radical slashing of the number of headquarters and the size of defense agencies. Reform should also look to streamlining the sustainment and supply chain activities which account for some $200 billion in annual costs. What reform should not do is undermine the maintenance of essential military capabilities.
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