How Could the Pentagon Possibly Defend Us With the Budget It Had Four Years Ago?

This week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to unveil detailed plans for about $260 billion of the $450 billion in savings that President Obama has asked him to find in the Penatgon's budget over the course of the next decade. Because those savings represent reductions in projected spending, as opposed to actual cuts, the defense budget would continue rising, but not as fast as it would under current law. Assuming all the "cuts" are enacted, total military spending will be about 8 percent less than currently projected. If you add the $500 billion in "automatic" defense cuts imposed by the legislation that resolved last summer's debt-limit dispute, the total reduction from projected spending is about 17 percent, bringing the Pentagon's base budget all the way down to a level last seen in 2007, when the country was not exactly helpless against its adversaries. Yet Panetta says that result would be "catastrophic," and every Republican presidential candidate, with the notable exception of Ron Paul, agrees, promising to prevent or reverse the cuts. Mitt Romney, who deems even the 8 percent reduction "irresponsible," says the additional cuts would "put our national security on the chopping block." At the October 11 debate, Newt Gingrich declared, "It is nonsense to say we're going to disarm the United States unilaterally because we're too stupid to balance the budget any other way." The New York Times puts such hyperventilating in perspective:

There were steeper military cuts after the Cold War and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

“Even at a trillion dollars, this is a shallower build-down than any of the last three we’ve done,” said Gordon Adams, who oversaw military budgets in the Clinton White House and is now a fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit research group in Washington. "It would still be the world's most dominant military. We would be in an arms race with ourselves."

When guardians of the Pentagon's budget say returning to 2007 spending levels is unthinkable, what they really mean is that it requires rethinking what the military is for, and maybe even giving priority to operations that have something to do with national defense. For instance:

Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, advocates saving $69.5 billion over 10 years by reducing by one-third the number of American military personnel stationed in Europe and Asia.

Three-thirds would be better, but at least Coburn is tenatively trying to think outside the box of our current commitments. So is Panetta (emphasis added):

In a shift of doctrine driven by fiscal reality and a deal last summer that kept the United States from defaulting on its debts, Mr. Panetta is expected to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military — and in so doing make it clear that the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at once.

Instead, he will say that the military will be large enough to fight and win one major conflict, while also being able to "spoil" a second adversary’s ambitions in another part of the world while conducting a number of other smaller operations, like providing disaster relief or enforcing a no-flight zone.

The new doctrine is just as abitrary as the old one, but at least it's a little cheaper. I would even venture to say that reducing the U.S. government's ability to engage in pointless, costly, and destructive military interventions might decrease the likelihood of such interventions. "If the Pentagon saves nearly $150 billion in the next 10 years by shrinking the Army to, say, 483,000 troops from 570,000," the Times worries, "would America be prepared for a grinding, lengthy ground war in Asia?" If not, that sounds like a feature, not a bug.

In a recent NRO piece explaining why "Paul’s Foreign Policy Is Truly Outside the Mainstream," Jamie Fly notes that the U.S. has engaged in 26 foreign military operations since 1898, or one every four years or so. "American administrations of both parties end up intervening in foreign conflicts and supporting our allies with overseas deployments because doing so is in our interest and because it embodies the values upon which our nation was founded," he writes. Fly thinks that's a good thing, but the standard seems infinitely elastic to me: As President Obama showed with his illegal war in Libya, there is no military operation that cannot be justified by broadly defined "interests," supplemented by broadly defined "values." Restraining military spending might just force future presidents to be a bit more cautious. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The dollar buys less today. Not sure how that happened.

  • ||

    Fucking fiat currencies, how do they work?

  • BakedPenguin||

  • ||

    Well, duh. If "both" parties do it, it must be right.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Bipartisanship: It's just like double penetration, except you won't get paid for it and there's no lube.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    I'd call it triple penetration, at this rate.

  • CalebT||

    You know who could defend the United States: cute little Riley!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CU040Hqbas

  • ||

    That picture is the visual equivalent of "concern troll is concerned."

  • Gojira||

    Restraining military spending might just force future presidents to be a bit more cautious.

    But really, it probably won't.

  • ||

    We can't let the empire be even one iota less empire-y!

  • ||

    It's not an empire, damnit, it's just a hegemenemenmeny.

  • ||

    ...the Times worries, "would America be prepared for a grinding, lengthy ground war in Asia?"

    Good grief, didn't anybody listen to Vizzini?

    At a Halloween party this year, I was talking to an Army captain and his wife who have been stationed in Germany and other places before their current post (Honolulu). They have a large wine collection that they started while over in Germany. The wife was telling me what a hassle it is to make sure the professional movers hired by the military organize and pack the wine bottles carefully. So that wherever they are, in their hops from base to base the world over, they can have their wine collection with them. Your tax dollars at...um, play.

    How many of our allies have military bases on U.S. soil? That's how many foreign-located military bases we should have.

  • DJF||

    One big problem is the present definition of “us” when it concerns defense.. Its now includes most of Europe, large parts of the Middle East, parts of Asia and now with the new “Africa Command” the US government is expanding “us” to include parts of Africa, specific locations to be determined.

    Cutting “defense” spending is hard when we have US politicians giving away defense guarantees all over the world. Cut the overseas commitments and cutting defense spending becomes much easier. Don’t cut the commitments and it can be argued that the US is not spending enough now.

  • old fart||

    why do I get a picture of Ann Coulter hawking her autobiography on this page?

  • Not an Economist||

    One other reason nobody here has mentioned is a lot of the equipment used over in Iraq, Afghanistan, and others is worn out and needs to be replaced. An old car costs more to use than a new one. And at some point it is easier and cheaper to buy a new one than it is to fix the old one.

  • ||

    There is a lot more to it than the author alludes to.

    Acquisition programs are funded over a period of time across the Future Year Defense Program (FYDP) (a 6 year period). The money is doled out by Congress in increments every two years and it is only good for a 2 year period.

    Acquisition programs, especially for larger equipment (fighters, bombers, tanks, ships...) start 6-9 years prior to seeing the first dime. The actual, design, development and testing can take an additional 6-9 years and then another 6-9 years of production.

    The problem is, you have many programs in the middle of this god-awfully long process (a process that is the brainchild of your United States Congress, I might add). If you pull 600B out of the budget for ongoing programs, you will essentially kill most (or at least a good portion) of them and not only do you not get the replacement systems, but you've flushed all the development/pre-development money already spent down the shitter.

    What most people don't realize, is after being at war for the last 20 years (yes, the AF has been on a war footing in Iraq since the first gulf war...no fly zones) that pretty much ALL the Army and Air Force equipment is on it's last leg. And I mean that quite literally. It is beat to shit. (Another overlooked bi-product of sending the military into conflicts with little or no national interests.)

    To terminate all those acquisition programs mid-stream after pissing away all that money, you would need to start over from scratch and that would mean you are again another 15 years away from replacing your equipment that's falling apart right now.

    SO, yes Virginia, if the cut goes ahead as planned, it will be devastating for the defense of the nation.

    I don't condone the Acquisition system. It is fucking broken. But it is what it is (at the behest of Congress). There is a lot more to it than most people would ever guess and disturbing it mid-stream ALWAYS has the effect of costing the taxpayer even MORE money.

  • shamalamadingdong||

    You are right, of course.

  • SW_Ohio||

    I work in AF Acquisition and agree with many of the points you state. However, a defense cut doesn't HAVE to equate to a cut in ongoing acquisition programs. There's plenty to cut elsewhere. Part of the problem in the past is that the leadership just does "across the board" cuts instead of identifying certain activities that can be cut and certain others that can be left alone. That lazy-ass approach is probably driven by all the congressmen that will complain about any selective cutting that will negatively impact their ability to get reelected.

  • ||

    Where do you work at WP?

    Maybe we know each other. I was ACCSO-A from 02-06.

  • Sevo||

    "Acquisition programs, especially for larger equipment (fighters, bombers, tanks, ships...) start 6-9 years prior to seeing the first dime. The actual, design, development and testing can take an additional 6-9 years and then another 6-9 years of production."

    Don't have it handy, but there's a book on the Lockhead 'Skunk Works' probably ghost-written for Ben Rich.
    Toward the end, 'he' makes some recommendations for defense purchasing that would certainly streamline matters. He also has a discussion with a Russian weapons designer who makes the comment that the US stuff is made like a watch, while there's is made like an alarm-clock; knock it off the bedstand, and it still works.
    The point here is, like 'starving the beast', I wonder if the "cuts" might not serve to force the military (and the congress) to re-think the procurement process.
    One more point: Viewed from an econ standpoint, few activities are worse than defense spending. Taking a X-mil-fighter aircraft and turning it into scrap when it crashes or gets shot down is the epitome of moving a good from high-value to junk.
    Finally, I'm not convinced that the "cuts" would be "devastating for the defense of the nation."
    Who might attack us and what do we need to defend against that? Until that question is answered, we're throwing darts with the lights out.

  • ||

    The services HATE the system. It is unresponsive, ineffective and EXTREMELY inefficient. Somebody has a plan to revamp the acquisition system every 6-9 years. They all fall flat on their face. Why? It's the story of an underling trying to change the process for the boss when the boss could care less about improving the system. Congress has no intention of changing the acquisition system, because it increases their power.

    They create the ridiculous inefficient process that is nearly impossible to comply with and when there is a failure they blame the services. Win-win for a slime ball Congressman.

    The skunk works was a different animal. It was so secret that it had special funding and was off Congresses’ RADAR. They weren’t required to comply with the normal directives and thus could be a lot more efficient.

    To your final point, it's not the cuts themselves that are devastating, it's the time periods involved in developing a new system. The F-22 was in the conceptual stage when I was sophomore in college (85). The first operation squadron stood up in 04, I believe. You don't plan for the threats that are fielded today; you must plan for the threats to be fielded 20 years from today, because that’s about as soon as you can field anything new. A lot of bad shit can happen in 20 years. In 20 years the Russians could be allied with the Chinese against us. Who knows? You must be ready for the most likely worst case scenario.

  • Sevo||

    "You must be ready for the most likely worst case scenario."

    Sorry, but 'most likely' and 'worst case' are mutually exclusive.
    We pay various 'think-tanks' and our military brass to predict what is 'most likely'; 'worst case' means "no limit on military spending".

  • ||

    Yes, it's an oxymoron. It's a little self deprecating humor amongst planners. You base military requirements on your best guess for the future. You want to have better stuff than your potential adversary, 20 years from now. Since there is no crystal ball, it's best guess. And that best guess is invariably wrong because of inaccurate assumptions. It's NOT an easy job.

    But, compare US KIA in Vietnam (58,000) vs Iraq (4500). Is paying more for the advanced technology worth it? That's between the American People and their Congressmen. You can bitch about the cost of the equipment or you can bitch about casualties...you can't bitch about both. It's just like any other thing of value. What's it worth to you?

    That said, war is horrific. The only way to win is NOT to play.

  • Sevo||

    "But, compare US KIA in Vietnam (58,000) vs Iraq (4500). Is paying more for the advanced technology worth it?"

    Uh, care to somehow suggest the comparison is valid?

  • ||

    Why wouldn't it be? Similar time frames, similar tactics (adapted for the environment, of course). The difference was the training of our soldiers improved by orders of magnitude. AND our equipment is light years ahead of where it was then. We were fighting an enemy that had the same technology as the North Vietnamese.

    Do you see it otherwise?

  • ||

    Why, yes I do. Korea was a completely different war, fought against the mass armies of two nations. Iraq was fought against a jumped-up militia suited more for oppressing civilians.

  • ||

    Um...who here was talking about Korea?

  • ||

    iraq could only beat kuwait or similar, eg, qatar, uae.

    u.s. could have used equip from ww1, maybe civil war, and defeated iraq

  • RedBrief Coalition||

    I want to know about the "secret" funding.

  • cynical||

    Maybe it would be best (particularly in order to defend ourselves from neocon attacks in the eyes of defense-oriented conservatives and independents) to talk about defense and the military in terms of spending and savings. Not in terms of budget spending and savings, but in terms of using actual military resources, in terms of money, machinery, morale, and manpower.

    Neocons want us to spend as much of our military power as possible, all the time. Many libertarians and Paul-cons (not anarchists, mind you) prefer to stop spending our military resources and start saving them up for a time when they will truly be needed. Once we commit to saving military power, and especially once we have a little martial nest egg, we can cut the defense budget itself.

  • Sevo||

    The problem with your suggestion is that military tech and hardware isn't something that can be 'saved'; it must be updated constantly.
    *IF* we were attacked, it wouldn't be with muskets; they'd have the latest hardware they could afford.
    So what has to happen is a drastic revision on the design/development/procurement process.
    The incentives right now have little to do with streamlining that and a *lot* to do with protecting jobs in certain congressional districts.

  • cynical||

    "The problem with your suggestion is that military tech and hardware isn't something that can be 'saved'; it must be updated constantly."

    Which we would have an easier time doing if updating didn't have to compete with the costs of deploying and maintaining existing systems on multiple fronts.

  • ||

    ^this^

  • Sevo||

    "Which we would have an easier time doing if updating didn't have to compete with the costs of deploying and maintaining existing systems on multiple fronts."

    Well, reducing the waste of current assets would help, but they still end up 'wasted' as technology makes them obsolete.
    Far better to toss them in the can than use them to kill people, but they're gone regardless.

  • ||

    Yep. The way the military wastes money is appalling. It doesn't make money, and therefore there is no incentive to become more efficient. Advancement has nothing to do with saving money, so why is it in the Pentagon's best interest to try? It will NEVER be run like a business, because it's NOT a business. And, for the life of me, I can't figure out how to make it one. How do you measure "combat capability"?

    I can tell you though, the two areas where money is well spent, is combat training and equipment. The rest is pork, of which there are immeasurable amounts.

    If you have ideas on how to fix it...serve it up. It was my job the last 3 years in (lean six sigma), and the resistance to change is unfathomable.

  • George Washington||

    "American administrations of both parties end up intervening in foreign conflicts and supporting our allies with overseas deployments because doing so is in our interest and because it embodies the values upon which our nation was founded,"

    FUCK YOU. Read what I wrote you fucking piece of garbage.

  • mofo||

    "the total reduction from projected spending is about 17 percent, bringing the Pentagon's base budget all the way down to a level last seen in 2007,"

    So pretty much Somalia, right there.

  • ||

    You start with a coherent vision of what the US military should be doing, and then you budget from there.

    It shouldn't be garrisoning nations that have been at peace for generations and which are perfectly capable of defending themselves, if they care to.

    It shouldn't be pissing in the wind trying to turn barbarian backwaters into modern, civilized nations.

    Get rid of those functions alone, which have nothing to do with defending the United States against armed attack, and you're well on your way to major cuts.

  • ||

    ^EXACTLY!^

  • ||

    regarding planning for future wars.

    there are future wars and current wars because u.s. starts them. or fights them for israel.

  • the tenacious one||

    while it is ridiculous to say that returning to a 2007 defense budget would doom our national security, it is equally irresponsible to advocate for defunding certain aspects of our national defense apparatus in the hopes that doing so will 'deter' future US involvement around the world. it just sounds dangerous and irresponsible to hope that we will not get involved in a land war in Asia in 15 years by "starving the beast" that is DoD. that's how you end up with an army that is too small

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement