It's crazy to take an accountant's approach to cutting the defense budget

Kenny Holston/US Air Force

Nine U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft sit on the ramp before taking off Jan. 10, 2012, from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. Twelve F-16s and approximately 250 Airmen deployed to Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, for a three-month deployment.

Article Highlights

  • Before 2010, Obama had reduced planned #defense spending by $400 billion, eliminating the procurement of the F-22

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  • America’s armed forces will be smaller, less capable and will face greater risk in carrying out the country’s commitments

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  • As Sec. Robert Gates suggests, it is no longer sufficient to take an accountant’s approach to #defense

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The November 2010 congressional elections brought a host of new members to Washington. Elected, they believed, and correctly so, to change the course in the nation’s capital, their first priority was getting government spending and the immense deficit it was producing under control. 

The federal government had become an unmanageable Leviathan and they were determined to pare it back and change course in the face of an administration that appeared determined not only to keep government big and active but expand its reach even further.

Faced with an annual deficit total approaching $1.5 trillion, it was natural that the new Republican majority in the House would look to cut government spending. And because the Department of Defense is, by far, the largest piece of the pie when it comes to the “discretionary” part of the federal budget, it became a natural target for reductions. 

"The $45 billion in savings that will result from paring back the defense budget are peanuts when compared to a deficit that will once again be over one trillion dollars this year."--Gary Schmitt

As was repeated ad nauseum by many on the Hill and by pundits, defense had to be “on the table” if the deficit was to be tackled. 

The result was enactment of the budget control act this past year that mandated more than $450 billion in defense cuts and, potentially, another $500 billion if the “super committee” could not agree on a deficit-reduction plan to pare back the federal deficit—which it didn’t.

However, all of these numbers were divorced from two key points. 

The first is that defense had already been “on the table.” Even before the elections in 2010, the Obama administration had already reduced planned defense expenditures by nearly $400 billion, eliminating among other things the continued procurement of the F-22, the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world.

Second, while it is true that the defense budget had grown substantially since the attacks on 9/11, most of that growth had come from expenditures tied to the wars and pay and benefits for our all-volunteer military force. 

What it was not going to were programs to replace and modernize the military’s planes, ships, helicopters and vehicles at a level necessary to prevent America’s arsenal from becoming increasingly old, worn-out and difficult to maintain. 

The “procurement holiday” of the 1990’s was allowed to slide into and through the first decade of the 21st Century—something the new members had little knowledge of. 

The fact is, the government had been deferring “recapitalizing” its military for more than a decade and a half and that bill came due precisely when the economy went into recession, government revenues declined precipitously and the deficit exploded.

What was missing from Congress’ deliberations over the budget and the macro-level cuts it was willing to impose on the Pentagon was exactly what these might mean for American grand strategy and America’s military capabilities. But with the release of the administration’s new defense guidance in early January and yesterday’s announcement by the Pentagon of its budget for the upcoming year, we now know what the concrete consequences of the cuts being made will be. 

Behind all the rhetoric coming from the administration about the country having a smarter, more agile and more technologically-advanced military, the reality is that America’s armed forces will be smaller, less capable and, as a result, will face greater risk in carrying out the country’s security commitments and keeping our adversaries at bay.

Despite the defense “hole” that the military is in, the administration is proposing to cut spending this upcoming year by some $45 billion from what it wanted just a year ago, eliminate nearly $260 billion from planned expenditures over the next five years, and, with inflation factored in, “flat line” defense’s top line for the next half decade at least.

What this means programmatically is, among other things: a cut in our land forces of 100,000; the delayed production of the needed new helicopters and stealthy jets; the elimination of one-tenth of the Air Force’s tactical fighter squadrons and scores of vital air-transport planes; and a reduction in ships and shipbuilding plans that leaves the Navy fleet at its smallest since before World War I

And there is no question that there will be less money for pursuing new technologies to sustain American military superiority into the future, for advancing missile defense capabilities and for repairing our nuclear weapons infrastructure to ensure we have a safe and effective strategic deterrent.

Such cuts might make sense if they really and truly were to make a dent in the federal red ink. 

However, the $45 billion in savings that will result from paring back the defense budget are peanuts when compared to a deficit that will once again be over one trillion dollars this year.

And, finally, the cuts might also make sense if we knew for a fact that our future security needs would be less than what they have been in the past. 

Yet, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointedly noted little less than a year ago while addressing the cadets at West Point, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect—we have never once gotten it right.” 

As Gates’ statement suggests, it’s no longer sufficient to take an accountant’s approach to the defense budget.

With real people and real programs now being cut, Congress needs to step back and reexamine the likely strategic consequences of the decisions that are now being put forward by the Obama administration.

Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar and director of advanced strategic studies at AEI

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