Why America’s Military Escaped This Season of Budget Cuts

Military analysis.
April 10 2013 7:10 PM

Line Item Warfare

If big military cuts are coming, they haven’t arrived yet.

From left: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, Undersecretary of Defense and Comptroller Robert F. Hale, and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno at a Feb. 12 congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.
From left: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, Undersecretary of Defense and Comptroller Robert F. Hale, and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno at a Feb. 12 congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama released his budget today. Everyone seems to be saying it’s dead on arrival. I’m here to tell you that the military part of the budget is doing no better than limping along.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Even before the sequestration took hold, the word in national-security circles was that great change lay ahead for the Pentagon. The end of the Iraq war, the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, the “pivot” to Asia, and the overwhelming fiscal pressures—all foretold drastic cuts and dramatic restructurings in the defense budget.

In fact, the Fiscal Year 2014 defense budget doesn’t look much different from the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. It’s only about 1 percent smaller and in substance is holding steady. Not much change here.

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First, though, let’s look at how big the military budget really is. The White House and Pentagon announced today that it amounts to $526.6 billion. However, this leaves out an estimated $88 billion for overseas military operations (mainly in Afghanistan), $17 billion for nuclear-weapons programs in the Department of Energy, and $7 billion for defense-related programs in other federal agencies—for an actual total of about $638 billion. That is about the same as last year, or what last year’s would have been without sequestration.

And the sequestration points up to one way in which this budget marks a huge evasion. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted at a news conference that sequestration has forced him to cut $52 billion from the budget—but this applies to the budget for Fiscal Year 2013, which was passed last year and is in effect now. The budget documents rolled out today are for FY 2014 and are meant to go into effect next year.

Two things are worth noting about this distinction. First, the Pentagon’s managers haven’t yet figured out where to cut the $52 billion from current programs. (Furloughing civilians and a scattershot of administrative reforms don’t quite make it.) Second, these same managers are assuming that, by the time this new FY14 budget takes hold, everything is back to normal, and all the funds cut by sequestration have been restored. Certainly there’s nothing in the FY14 budget that assumes anything cataclysmic has happened with the FY13 budget.

Where are the major cuts that President Obama and Secretary Hagel have said are coming to defense spending, even after the crisis over sequestration is settled? The budget documents suggest that these cuts will take place in the “out-years”—halfway or so into the Pentagon’s 10-year plan, which, as everyone knows, is a bookkeeping fiction. In other words, nobody knows where those cuts are coming from.

Meanwhile, nothing—nothing—has been prepared for that fateful day. The FY14 budget preserves every big-ticket weapon system that the Army, Navy, and Air Force chiefs cherish.

For instance, there’s still $8.4 billion for 29 more F-35 stealth fighters, about the same allocation as in each of the last two years, despite the plane’s crippling technical problems and massive cost-overruns. In fact, all three versions of the plane are still being built. (The 29 new planes include four, designed to land on aircraft carriers, for the Navy; six vertical-takeoff models for the Marines; and 19 conventional models for the Air Force, despite the inefficiencies involved.)

There’s still $5.4 billion (almost $500 million more than last year) for the Navy’s new nuclear attack submarines, $1.7 billion ($1 billion more) for a new aircraft carrier, and $2 billion for a new destroyer.