Can the U.S. Defend Itself if Sequestration Cuts Really Happen?

If the military can't absorb a $55 billion hit, it's not worth what we've been spending on it.


Above is a chart compiled by Mercatus Center economist and policy analyst Veronique de Rugy (also a Reason columnist and a frequent co-author of mine). It breaks down what the federal government spent on defense last year. It turns out that when folks cite the base budget of the Department of Defense, they're only talking about a bit more than half of all tax dollars spent on defense.

This chart puts into perspective the amount of spending that is not being accounted for in widely cited figures by the Pentagon (DOD) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Using data calculated by Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight, line items from other areas of the federal budget relevant to defense and security issues are added to the FY 2012 base. The findings suggest that reported defense spending figures underestimate the overall cost of defense and national security programs by up to $400 billion in FY 2012.

Read more here.

So when you add up all the various parts of the budget that go toward defense, security, and related issues, you're much closer to the $1 trillion mark than the half-trillion number that gets bandied about in sequestration discussions.

If it's tricky to figure out the total amount of money spent on defense, it's still pretty damn clear that the United States can withstand planned sequestration cuts without leaving the nation open to attacks by Islamic death cultists, Chinese nationals, a resurgent Russia, or what-have-you. Sequestration will takean estimated $55 billion out of the DOD base figure above (nobody is actually certain of the final amounts, but it will be around 9 percent of the base budget). That possibility is enough to get Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to bitch:

"I'm ashamed of the Congress, I'm ashamed of the president, and I'm ashamed of being in this body, quite frankly," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), an Air Force Reservist who has been working for months to develop a bipartisan plan to protect the Pentagon.

"How do you go to somebody in the military who's been deployed four or five times .?.?. and say, 'For your good work over the last decade, we're going to ruin the military; we're going to make it harder for you to have the equipment you need to fight, and we're going to reduce benefits to your family?'?" he said.

As a starting point for a therapy session, Graham might want to train his fire on a foreign policy that has led to soldiers being deployed again and again for a decade-plus in two misconceived and poorly executed wars that are ending with whimpers. And he might want to kick the ass of his Senate colleagues, who have not managed to pass a budget since April 2009. That failure to accomplish the most-basic of tasks not just once but three years running is the reason we're even talking about automatic spending cuts (that have, unsurprisingly, been pushed back from when they were supposed to kick in). The failure to pass budgets begat the 2011 debt-limit deal which begat the failed spending super-committee which begat sequestration.

Graham never seems to be in a situation where he has to respond to the most obvious question for him and other folks who think that the Great God Defense Spending should never be cut, even after a decade-plus of growth. Inflation-adjusted military spending jacked up no less than 71 percent between 2001 and 2010 alone. If the country can't cut it by 9 percent now, with two major wars ending, then we have given up all possibility of ever changing the trajectory of our spending patterns.

Oh, and here's something else that might make Graham cranky: Voters are totally happy to cut defense spending. As pollster Scott Rasmussen reported in Reason's October 2012 issue, fully 67 percent of Americans want to see cutting across-the-board in every federal budget. The U.S. spends about $2,500 per capita for national security while most of our NATO allies spend 20 percent of that amount (Rasmussen noted that less than half of Americans think we should still be in NATO). Voters may not have figured those costs to the penny, but they intuit that the U.S. can ease off a bit on military spending without too much worry.

But sadly, even if sequestration comes to pass, Graham won't have to wait long for defense spending to start cranking up again. Here's another chart de Rugy put together. It shows the effect of sequestration under various scenarios related to the base Defense budget, war spending, caps subject to the Budget Control Act of 2011 (which gave us sequestration as a backup plan if Congress couldn't agree to spending cuts under normal circumstances).

Read the whole explanation here, but the short version is this: It'll be a year or two before military spending is back to where it was and, in fact, is back on its blue-sky path yet again, soaring upwards toward the heavens where nobody ever gets burned by flying too close to the sun. Or something like that.