As deficit reduction returns to the forefront of the American political agenda, the question of whether the Pentagon should contribute proportionately to any major budget-reduction exercise has rattled the cages of official Washington.
The issue is not what should happen this year so much as in 2013 and beyond, once the recession ends and the wars abroad decline in scale. The case for selective defense reductions is in fact strong — but not, as many defense critics argue, due to Pentagon waste or imperial overreach. Cutting defense will in fact add modest risk to our short-term security. But to shore up the economic foundations of our long-term security, such cuts deserve serious consideration for the simple reason that the alternatives are worse.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has again moved in this direction with his recent suggestions for military spending reductions, particularly in the 2014-15 timeframe. But his proposal, while sound, is only an opening salvo in this debate.
Hawks, however, are already digging in. Several conservative scholars and some Republican members of Congress have responded to the recent deficit commissions by arguing that defense is among the federal government's prime constitutional responsibilities, and that any cuts to the military leaving us less secure would be false economies. They suggest that military costs — or at least those not associated with the ongoing wars — should be treated differently from other parts of the budget. In effect, these folks are arguing for sanctuary from the inevitable budgetary austerity.
These views have a certain persuasiveness. If by cutting defense too deeply, we gave leaders in Beijing the wrong idea about our willingness to defend our interests in the Western Pacific, for example, we could embolden China. If a key U.S. ally was attacked as a result, we would have little choice but to respond. The conflicts of the past decade have cost us more than $1 trillion to date; it is almost unimaginable what war against a rising China would entail. Any proposed defense cutbacks must be rigorously tested against the possibility that they could increase the chances of such outcomes — and rejected if deemed imprudent.
Nonetheless, hawks who are unwilling even to have the conversation about cuts go too far. After all, without even counting war costs from Iraq and Afghanistan, our real-dollar defense budget rivals the Cold War peak and is about a third greater than a decade ago. This level might not be necessary.
No responsible person is suggesting that current overseas operations should be prematurely terminated, or the military budget raided, or the armed forces asked to provide the lion's share of deficit reduction. But 10% real cutbacks — roughly the military's proportionate share of any serious deficit reduction effort — should be within the realm of serious consideration.
These cuts could be made, for example, by reducing our standing Army and Marine Corps back to 1990s levels once the Afghanistan operation begins to wind down, and by curbing weapons acquisition programs in areas such as fighter aircraft modernization, in which multiple programs overlap. Done carefully, we could make such budget cuts while sustaining current deployments and other capabilities in the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf regions, among other places. To be sure, potential dangers arise in this approach. Yet current policy comes with its own considerable risks.
Nothing is Off-Limits
Austerity measures are never pleasant, yet if entrenched interests are allowed to protect their preferred government priorities — be it Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, college aid and science research, preschool programs and grade school education, or the tax code — deficit reduction efforts will surely founder. And the country's long-term well-being will follow.
The most probable consequence will then be an outcome toward which we are already headed. Public debt levels will exceed our annual GDP, making us like Japan or, worse yet, Greece or Portugal or Italy. With health care costs rapidly escalating, there would be no natural end to this deteriorating fiscal spiral. Federal interest costs alone would be projected to approach $1 trillion a year within a decade. A country with trillion dollar interest payments and growing debt cannot afford a strong military over the long term. Nor can it make the scientific, educational and infrastructural investments needed for long-term economic vitality.
Yet in the weeks and months ahead, politicians will be making the "hands off" argument. Those who argue for reasonable military cuts will be called "weak on defense."
The public shouldn't buy it. After all, a failure to avert the oncoming fiscal calamity could cripple the U.S. economically over time. With that, the people will be loath to provide the political underpinning for the global economic and military engagement that has been at the heart of America's defense strategy since World War II.
Thus, we might need to take some prudent strategic risks now to protect our fundamental strength over the longer term. To dismiss careful defense budget cutbacks categorically is false hawkishness, for it fails to address the economic challenge posed to the long-term foundations of U.S. national power.