Defense vs. food stamps -- what would you choose?
The president has made no secret of his desire to gut the military, even before the current budget showdown.

US Air Force/Ann Skarban

Air Force reservists assigned to the 302nd Airlift Wing load a U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System unit onto a C-130 Hercules at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., June 24, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Washington is battling over sequestration as $500 billion in additional defense budget cuts loom in January. @MEaglen

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  • It’s clear that the president prioritizes domestic spending programs over the defense budget. @MEaglen

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  • Even before sequestration, the US military has seen 3 years of budget cuts and the consequences are already here.

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  • The military cannot be immune from reform, but it should at least be immune from attack. @MEaglen

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Washington is battling these days over "sequestration," the $500 billion additional cut to the defense budget looming in January. The White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill insist that intransigent Republicans are risking cuts that no one wants. This is a charade. By his own admission, President Obama has always wanted to cut the defense budget dramatically.

In April 2011—long before the near shutdown of the government and the last-minute debt-ceiling deal, which paved the way for sequestration—the president outlined $400 billion in defense cuts he had already approved. He also said that he wanted to "do that again" and find another $400 billion in military spending reductions. All this without any talk of threats, strategy or requirements—just arbitrary budget targets imposed on the military.

"It's clear that Mr. Obama prioritizes sundry domestic spending programs over the defense budget. " - Mackenzie EaglenIt's clear that Mr. Obama prioritizes sundry domestic spending programs over the defense budget. That budget "is so big," he said last July, "that you can make relatively modest changes to defense that end up giving you a lot of head room to fund things like basic research or student loans or things like that." He added later: "A lot of the spending cuts that we're making should be around areas like defense spending as opposed to food stamps."

Even before sequestration and the possible loss of a half-trillion dollars, the U.S. military has seen three years of budget cuts. The consequences are already here. We have to look all the way back to 1916 to find a year when the Air Force purchased fewer aircraft than are included in Mr. Obama's 2013 budget request.

Many of the Air Force's aerial refueling tankers predate human space flight. Training aircraft are twice as old as the students flying them. The F-15 fighter first flew 40 years ago. A-10 ground-attack planes were developed in the Carter years. And all of our B-52 bombers predate the Cuban missile crisis.

Then there's the Navy, which is the smallest it has been since 1916. At 286 combat and combat-support ships, the Navy today is less than half the size it reached during the Reagan administration. And what about those men and women who have been fighting America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001? They're losing 100,000 in active duty personnel. Surely some will go from the front lines to unemployment lines as a result.

As the largest employer in America, the Department of Defense should not be off the hook for belt-tightening. Everyone loves to hate the Pentagon's broken acquisition system, for good reason. The emphasis on contractors often masks the government's contribution to spiraling costs and schedule delays. And this takes the pressure off leaders to change the way the Pentagon buys not weapons but services. Of the roughly $400 billion the military spends on goods, services, information technology and commodities each year, more than half goes to services. A reformed process would emphasize competition, reduce congressional regulations, restore the authority of service secretaries and accelerate programs for completion in seven years or fewer.

Other key reform initiatives include a long overdue review of the Pentagon's nearly 800,000 civilian workers. While private industry has been shrinking throughout the recession, the Pentagon's civilian workforce has grown by 10 percent since 2009. This and other factors (such as the bureaucratic effect of "jointness," or collaboration between the branches of the military) have bloated the ratio of contractors and support staff to warfighters.

But these reforms shouldn't be cover by which to claim ever more arbitrary defense cuts. Absent strategic vision and planning from the White House or the Pentagon, aerospace and defense companies aren't waiting to act. They've stopped hiring, halted investing in infrastructure, and begun preemptively consolidating. Research and development is slowing, and mergers and acquisitions are being sidelined, as investors wait for a signal.

Then there's the impact on American power. Military leaders have suggested that taking on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Third World army would be an operation of "many, many months." The so-called "pivot" to Asia is being mimed with fewer ships on longer deployments and a shrinking, aging air force. We're ignoring a wholesale Chinese power grab in the South China Sea and watching the nuclearization of Iran.

There is a generic hope in Washington that funding will eventually be restored to the national defense. But any fix or delay to sequestration — let alone a rational debate about Defense Department reform — will be complicated by the difficulty of negotiating new debt-ceiling arrangements under the cloud of another possible sovereign debt downgrade.

In testimony before Congress recently, White House budget director Jeffrey Zients suggested that Congress is to blame for defense cuts. But no Republican occupies the seat of commander in chief. Mr. Obama does, and having pledged repeatedly to slice defense, he has done so arbitrarily and without an overarching strategy — before Congress ever got involved. And only Mr. Obama can broker a budget compromise. The military cannot be immune from reform, but it should at least be immune from attack.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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