What Cutting Defense Really Means

  • January 29, 2013, 7:15 p.m. ET

The Obama administration’s current plan scales down the active-duty military to the pre-9/ll level.


How much more, if at all, should the U.S. cut its military budget as part of comprehensive deficit-reduction efforts?

A typical observer can be forgiven some confusion on this issue. Even the recent history of defense spending isn’t clear. Some say that the 2011 Budget Control Act cut $487 billion from the military over the next 10 years, while others claim that the armed forces will lose nothing from their core budget because the budget was bloated before 2011 anyway. In fact, the most accurate figure for cuts under current law is $350 billion over 10 years, as measured relative to a standard Congressional Budget Office baseline that assumes modest growth for inflation.

Further confusing the issue are competing arguments over how damaging additional cuts may be. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has voiced adamant opposition to any further reductions that would take annual defense spending much below $550 billion. Yet as a White House official in the 1990s he was content with a $400 billion annual budget (all figures are adjusted for inflation).

Meanwhile Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has questioned whether the U.S. could remain a superpower if the military loses another $500 billion (or 8% of its budget) over the next 10 years. Yet in 2010 the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici commissions endorsed cuts of that very magnitude.

Given all this, many doves will favor more cuts, arguing that the U.S. still outspends China 3-to-1, accounts for more than 40% of all global military expenditures, and spends more than it did during the Cold War. By contrast, hawks will tend to emphasize that the world remains dangerous and the U.S. will soon spend just 3% of GDP on its military, when Cold War norms were two to three times that amount. Rather than resolve the impasse by such sweeping arguments, however, it would be better to link budget numbers to strategies and capabilities.

The starting point for doing so is the Obama administration’s current military plan, which incorporates only the $350 billion in cuts from the Budget Control Act. The plan scales down the military from about 1.5 million active-duty uniformed personnel to 1.4 million, the pre-9/11 level that is two-thirds the Cold War norm. The plan also chips away at modernization programs but preserves most major ones (with one or two notable exceptions), and it levels off various forms of military pay and benefits. Still, most troops will continue to be compensated better than private-sector cohorts of similar age, education and technical skill.

Building on this plan, there are two basic ways to proceed now: a tactical approach and a strategic one.

Tactical cuts would stay with the basic national-security strategy of the Obama administration but look for additional economies within it. This is the thinking that Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), Rep. Chris van Hollen (D., Md.) and some others have espoused of late. Additional cuts might take defense spending down another $100 billion to $200 billion over a decade (though some savings might be counterbalanced by higher-than-expected costs elsewhere in the Pentagon budget). For example, in addition to another necessary round of base closures:

• The active-duty Army and Marine Corps could shrink somewhat below their 1990s levels, rather than staying slightly above those levels as current plans dictate.

• To get by with its current 286-ship fleet (or less) rather than increase its numbers, the Navy could employ innovative approaches such as “sea swap,” by which some crews are rotated via airplane while ships stay forward-deployed longer.

• The military could scale back its intended purchases of F-35 joint strike fighters—good but expensive planes—by roughly half from its current intended buy of nearly 2,500 airframes.

• Rather than design a new submarine to carry ballistic missiles, the Navy might simply refurbish the existing Trident submarine or reopen that production line.

• The military could further streamline compensation, close some stateside commissaries and exchanges, and modestly increase military health-care premiums while scaling back pensions.

The other approach—necessary if big cuts like those proposed by the Simpson-Bowles commission are to happen—would require a more profound strategic shift. This wouldn’t emasculate the country, deprive it of superpower status or force the abandonment of any allies, but it would mean accepting substantially greater risk. I would oppose these larger cuts but can imagine three scenarios for carrying them out:

• Cut the active-duty Army and Marine Corps by 25%, depriving the U.S. of the capacity to conduct anything much more than one large ground operation at a time.

• Gradually return military compensation—now $25,000 greater per person than at the start of the Bush administration—to 2001 levels, including considerable cuts in both benefits and base pay.

• Finally, eliminate the F-35 program rather than cut it in half.

Together with the more modest economies described above, these initiatives could produce $500 billion in 10-year savings—the same amount that would be dictated if “sequestration” goes into effect in the absence of a budget deal in Congress.

Others may see different ways to realize these kinds of savings, but it is time we stopped tossing around big budget numbers like chips in a poker game or pretending that magical reforms in Pentagon operations can yield huge savings quickly and painlessly. Possible savings mean changes in American military capability and, quite possibly, changes to U.S. national security.

Mr. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is author of “Right-Sizing Defense Cuts” in the new Brookings briefing book “Big Bets and Black Swans.”

A version of this article appeared January 30, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What Cutting Defense Really Means.





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