Getting Real on Defense Cuts

Despite the heat — or maybe because of it — Washington is abuzz with debates over future U.S. defense spending.

Would sequestration in January require furloughs for Pentagon employees and unacceptable disruptions to weapons production efforts as well as job creation? Has the military done enough for deficit reduction? Is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney right that even the first round of defense cuts set up by the Budget Control Act and supported by President Barack Obama goes too far?

Obama would reduce the military’s annual core budget — not including war costs, which are declining faster — by about $50 billion over the next decade to about $500 billion. Sequestration would cut another $50 billion to around $450 billion a year. Defense spending would be at the same level as it was during the Cold War after those cuts. But defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product would drop to 3 percent — far below Cold War levels, which were two to three times as great. Our advantage over China, for example, would likely soon drop from earlier levels of about 10 to one to about two to one.

Obama’s plan would pursue cuts with steps like reducing the sizes of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps to 490,000 and 180,000 uniformed personnel, respectively — down 12 percent to 15 percent from their recent highs but still more than typical 1990s levels. It would defer, but not appreciably scale back, various procurement programs to save money in the near-term budget; eliminate some older ships and airlifters; reduce Air Force combat aircraft units by roughly 10 percent; bring home two of four Army brigades in Europe; and make modest changes in military compensation, in health care and perhaps pensions, especially for retirees. If Congress goes along, Obama would also carry out further rounds of base closures.

Does this list go far enough? With the nation’s deficit stuck at about $1 trillion a year, some would say no. Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), for example, argue for even deeper cuts than either presidential candidate would favor — not unlike what would happen under sequestration. Yet a controversial new study, financed by the defense industry, talks about a million jobs being jeopardized, directly and indirectly, by Obama’s proposals — and two million if sequestration occurs. The military is already struggling with the challenge of maintaining adequate vigilance simultaneously in both the broader Middle East and the Western Pacific.

Cutting defense is a delicate balancing act. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has persuasively argued, federal debt has itself become a national security threat. The military budget needs to contribute to deficit reduction — and shouldn’t be maintained just to create jobs.

The Congressional Budget Office has thrown another monkey wrench into this debate. Just to fund Obama’s plans for future forces and weapons, the CBO argues in a new report, the Pentagon will need $500 billion more over the next decade than it estimates. That is an average of $50 billion a year. Obama’s math is too optimistic; the costs of his planned force posture are likely to be substantially greater than currently recognized.

Such reports are not uncommon. The Defense Department tends to be optimistic when forecasting costs. But when the nation is trying to construct a binding plan to guide future spending for a decade, it is more important than usual.

What this means: Just to meet Obama’s planned budget, as specified in the first tranche of reductions under the Budget Control Act, we will need to cut back on a lot more weaponry, force structure and civilian and military personnel than planned. Pay cuts may even be needed.

Because cutting waste, fraud and abuse, while important, does not offer the potential for savings at anywhere near the levels needed, we will need to cut military muscle, as well. The deeper budget cuts proposed by Bowles and Simpson and sequestration will have to be postponed — or at least softened — because we likely will have a daunting task in simply getting down to Obama’s $500 billion annual defense spending level.

To do so, we’ll need ideas like these:

• Streamlined ground forces: The Army and Marine Corps are slated to remain larger under Obama’s plan than in the 1990s. That is to be true even when the main phase of the war in Afghanistan is over and Iraq is no longer a pressing overland threat to its neighbors. Instead, the size of the active Army and Marine Corps can be slightly smaller than in the 1990s, with a net reduction of about 40,000 to 50,000 uniformed personnel in the active-duty force structure relative to what Obama now plans.

• Smaller F-35 fighter program: A fundamental rethinking of the F-35 fighter, our biggest defense procurement program, is appropriate — in light of the dramatic effectiveness of drones and other new technologies and the large size and cost of the manned-aircraft program.

Specifically, the F-35 program should be sized primarily to the potential China threat. Imagining a major deployment of F-35s to the region around Taiwan, for example, on land bases and ships, might result in halving the program’s size (with refurbishments of planes like F-16s making up the difference).

• A more economical nuclear force: It is important to keep strategic nuclear parity with Russia as well as a reliable, safe and dependable inventory of nuclear warheads in the post-nuclear testing era. But these goals can be achieved more economically. Adequate warheads can be deployed on eight submarines rather than 14 and on 250 intercontinental ballistic missiles rather than 450. The bomber fleet, funded for conventional missions and, thus, almost cost-free as a complement to intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, can be assigned a higher proportion of the nuclear mission. Within the Energy Department, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory can be reoriented around civilian energy with only Los Alamos National Lab remaining largely a nuclear design and stewardship laboratory — in addition to associated work at places like Sandia National Laboratories and the Nevada Test Site.

• Changes in compensation: An end to military commissaries and exchanges should be seriously considered. These provide benefits unequally and somewhat anachronistically to military service members and their families. Military pension reform is needed, as Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have argued, and indeed, military pay growth might have to be constrained to slightly less than the inflation rate for a few years, exempting deployed troops.

There is no absolutely correct U.S. defense budget level — calculating proper defense spending is as much art and politics as science. But while we are all entitled to our own opinions, to paraphrase the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we are not entitled to our own math.

The CBO is issuing a clarion call — it is time to get real about how to match military ends with means. Deeper budget cuts will have to wait. We are going to have to eliminate additional programs and forces just to accomplish the savings goals now on the books.