Obama’s New Defense Cuts Are Too Modest. He Could Cut Even More.

Military analysis.
Jan. 26 2012 4:59 PM

A Scalpel, Not a Hatchet

Why is Obama cutting so little out of the Pentagon budget? He could cut even more.

Leon Panetta.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta revealed modest cuts to the defense budget Wednesday

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

The Pentagon revealed a bit more of its defense budget today, and, really, the proposed cuts in spending amount to no big deal. It would be hard to justify not making these cuts. If Congress winds up wanting to cut deeper, there’s plenty of room for more hacking.

First, a word of caution: There are many ways to calculate a “cut,” and some will no doubt invoke a few to claim that the Obama administration’s cuts are severe. Let’s go to the numbers.

In his press conference today, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that he will request $525 billion for fiscal year 2013—plus $88 billion for “overseas contingency operations” (aka the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the costs for which have generally been considered separately from the baseline budget).

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Some hawks will no doubt scream that this constitutes a cut of $45 billion, or 8 percent—a substantial rip for a single year. But this claim is at best misleading. It’s true that, a year ago, the Pentagon projected that the budget for FY 2013 (at the time, two years out) would be $571 billion.

Compared with that figure, the sum Panetta settles for ($525 billion) is $45 billion less. But last year’s actual FY 2012 budget was $531 billion. And compared with this figure, the proposal for FY 2013 is a cut of just $6 billion, or 1 percent.

Caspar Weinberger pulled this trick all the time when he was Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary. He would insist that he was making drastic cuts by comparing his budget with what he’d projected it to be (sincerely or not) the year before—while, in fact, he was requesting massive increases.

I haven’t seen anyone do this yet, but conceivably some extreme critic might complain that Obama is cutting the budget by $72 billion. You could get there by adding, on top of the misleading $45 billion, the $27 billion he’s cutting from overseas contingency operations. But of course this latter cut reflects the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq and the beginning of the drawdown from Afghanistan. (Would even a Republican presidential candidate distort reality this much? It wouldn’t be the grossest instance.)

In any case, looking at the five-year defense plan that Panetta presented, the military budget goes back up in fiscal year 2014 and each year after, winding up at $567 billion in FY 2017. Measured in “real dollars” (that is, adjusting for inflation), the budget at least stays fairly constant—all five years amounting to a total cut (not an average annual cut but a total cut) of just 1.6 percent. This is the work of a paring knife, not a meat cleaver.

What are Obama and Panetta cutting?

As has been long predicted, the biggest knife goes to the Army, which is set to lose eight brigades and see its active-duty troop level decline from a post-9/11 peak of 570,000 (reached in 2010) to 490,000.

This seems to be a substantial cut—14 percent. But three facts need to be kept in mind.

First, a few years ago, the Army made plans, without any controversy, to cut 49,000 of those troops: This was the number that had been added on, as a temporary measure, to allow for the “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the Army needs to cut only 31,000 more to meet the target.

Second, 100,000 troops just left Iraq; another 33,000 will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. If Panetta didn’t deactivate some of them, where would they all go? Where, for what contingency or threat, are they needed? For instance, part of Panetta’s plan, which was fully coordinated with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is to deactivate two of the remaining four brigades stationed in Europe. Does anybody have a problem with that?

Third, even with these cuts, the Army will have more troops than it did in 2001. There will also still be a half-million in the National Guard and Reserve, which Panetta is leaving alone. He’s also leaving uncut the corps of midgrade officers (mainly colonels), so that, if a larger force does need to be recruited in a hurry, the combat leaders will still be there. Also he’s increasing the number of Special Operations Forces.

Under the plan, the Air Force will also lose six of its tactical fighter squadrons (out of its current 60) and 130 aging cargo-transport planes (leaving it with a fleet of 392). The budget sheets passed out at today’s briefing aren’t sufficiently detailed to allow for conclusions on whether these cuts are excessive. I’m sure we’ll know more once Panetta has to counter the inexorable protests by members of Congress from districts with large aerospace contracts.

Clearly, the shift in the Air Force is toward unmanned aircraft—the “drones” equipped with cameras and, in many cases, smart bombs. The budget sustains the 65 that are flying combat missions at any one time (meaning there are around 200 drones in all). Panetta is also building up the infrastructure so that the 65 can be expanded to 85. And it’s building new models, including Fire Scout, which is designed to operate at sea (presumably to monitor Chinese vessels in the South China Sea and, perhaps, suspicious cargo boats floating in or out of North Korea’s harbors).

The much-publicized “pivot” to the Pacific means that Panetta (no doubt with a nod from the White House) is leaving untouched the Navy’s fleet of 11 aircraft carriers and big-deck amphibious ships, letting slip only one submarine and a couple of smaller ships, and then merely as a bit of bookkeeping to place their delivery a little bit after the five-year defense plan.

China’s ambitions—and, more significantly, our Asian allies’ growing worries about those ambitions—may justify a recalibration of how many ships we need to build in the coming years. But are 11 carriers really needed? And given all the firepower and defensive radar on carriers these days, does each one need to be escorted by all the cruisers, frigates and destroyers that have followed them around in the past?

And what about the nuclear weapons arsenal? At the last big Pentagon news conference, on Jan. 5, when Panetta and President Obama himself outlined their new defense strategy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, Michele Flournoy, said at a briefing afterward that the budget would reflect the finding that national security can be preserved with a smaller nuclear force.

But now we see the budget, and the only apparent change in this realm is a two-year delay in production of a new Trident missile-carrying submarine. Meanwhile, the commitment to the “strategic triad”—the arsenal of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers—seems sacrosanct, complete with plans to build a new bomber.

A missed opportunity for huge savings came when Panetta announced that he remained committed to building the F-35 stealth fighter plane—2,443 aircraft in all, including the F-35B for the Marines. He will only be slowing down the production schedule to allow for further testing, followed possibly by changes in the plane itself. This slowdown will save $15 billion over the next five years. But he could save much more by shutting it down. If more planes are needed for some reason, he could build more modified F-16s and F-18s. They’re old, but they seem to be good enough that the Air Force and Navy are building more of them even now.

The big picture that this budget projects is in sync with the strategic review that Obama unveiled earlier this month: a shift away from Europe to the Pacific and Middle East; a shift away from large-scale, protracted “stability operations” (such as we’ve just been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan) to smaller, shorter operations (involving mainly Special Operations Forces and drones) to “advise and assist” foreign allies fighting insurgents; and a shift away from being able to win two wars at once (always a mythic notion) to being able merely to beat one foe while denying victory to another.

This strategic review was prompted, of course, by the Budget Control Act’s mandated reductions of $487 billion in defense spending over the next 10 years, including $259 billion over the next five. And the budget rolled out by Panetta today marks the first step to fulfilling that.

But, White House and Pentagon officials insist, they would have made these changes, as a response to global conditions, even if the fiscal house were in order.

If that’s the case, the shifts could be sharper, and the cuts could be deeper. More than that, they’re going to have to be. Military personnel and health care costs are skyrocketing. Panetta’s plan assumes reforms and efficiencies that will make some of those costs come down, but the assumption seems far-fetched, the numbers look loose. If those costs can’t be controlled, then savings will have to be found elsewhere. It’s time to take a deeper look at the military’s roles and missions—what they really need to do in the post-Cold War, post-Iraq/Afghanistan world and how much doing those things really has to cost.

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