Cut the Pentagon, Too
Why Obama's spending freeze should apply to (most of) the military.
Slate on the State of the Union: John Dickerson says Obama returned to the themes he campaigned on.Christopher Beam describes the partisan disharmony on the floor of the House. Bruce Reed praises the president's reassuring, common-sense blueprint. See images of Obama's first year as well as previous presidential speeches from Magnum Photos.
Yes, the budget also includes the new, high-tech "unmanned aerial vehicles"—the armed drones, as they're called—which are dominating so much of warfare today. These things didn't exist in the '80s. But they don't take up much of today's budget either. They're cheap. All told, according to the CBO, they and their infrastructure cost about $9 billion a year—barely 2 percent of the total Defense Department budget.
Last year, Obama and Gates announced they would "rebalance" the military budget, cutting or killing certain weapons that were no longer needed because they had little use against the range of plausible threats that we faced now or in the future. The president and the secretary of defense also boosted the production of other weapons that were very much needed in the wars we were fighting now. This was why they stopped production of the Air Force's F-22 fighter, revamped the Army's Future Combat Systems, and cut back the Navy's DDG-1000 destroyer—and why they put more money in drones, new armored personnel carriers, and intelligence sensors.
Next week, in addition to his new budget, Gates will present a new Quadrennial Defense Review—a congressionally mandated document that is supposed to lay out the priorities of U.S. defense policy and link them with defense budgets. A draft of the unclassified QDR (which is floating around and which someone sent me) states, "Further rebalancing may be called for in [the] coming years." It notes that the shifting shouldn't go too far; long-term needs are vital as well; the rebalance should still leave us with some kind of balance. However, the review adds, "The Department will continue to look assiduously for savings in less pressing missions and program areas."
So there's the admission that Obama should remove the Defense Department's budget—or $382 billion of it, anyway—from the category of "untouchable." The fact that Gates cut or killed (and will continue to cut or kill) some major weapons programs means that someone in the Pentagon put the weapon in the budget in the first place.
In other words, there is disagreement, even—especially—within the Defense Department, over whether some programs are needed. These programs reside in budgets that are, as Obama put it, "related to national security." But they are not all vital to national security. They should not be given a free ride when the rest of the bureaucracy has to make trade-offs.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of President Obama by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.