How, and Where, to Cut Defense Spending

How to understand the competing plans for curbing defense spending as part of broader federal deficit reduction? Anyone lacking a special pair of Pentagon-issued green eyeshades can be forgiven for being confused.

In fact, before making any decision on the competing plans, we should first make sense of what is actually on the table — linking proposed spending to U.S. national security interests and our broad military strategy. This has yet to be done.

Here’s a quick review of the bidding. First, Defense Secretary Robert Gates “cut” defense in 2009 — but was allowed to keep the savings in his projected budgets to reinvest in other military programs. So the overall defense budget plan “top line” was unchanged for the next five years.

Then Gates and President Barack Obama in February issued a new plan, which could cut about $100 billion from overall defense budget plans — but in a way allowing for some growth in military spending. (In other words, the projected rate of defense spending increases was slowed, not reversed.)

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) adopted this Gates budget as part of his deficit-reduction plan. Then, Obama proposed an additional $400 billion in defense and security reductions over the next dozen years in his April 13 budget speech, subject to confirmation in a review that Defense Secretary-designate Leon Panetta will presumably finish.

Some people already know what they think about all this. For committed doves, the U.S. overspends, because its defense budget represents nearly half of global military spending and outpaces its nearest rival, China, by about 5-to-1. For them, Obama is too timid in his planned defense tightening.

Osama bin Laden’s killing gives critics of defense spending additional fodder, since they can claim that the war on terror is now mostly done.

For hard-core hawks, meanwhile, what matters is U.S. defense spending constitutes only about 4.5 percent of gross domestic product, far less than during most of the Cold War. This spending is preferable, they say, to the costs of a war that lowering our military guard might make more likely.

For most of us, however, the choice is harder. So, before expecting Obama and Ryan to draw swords to settle the issue, it makes sense to understand the implications of each plan.

This is a serious debate between two credible, moderate voices. Neither Ryan nor Obama is an extremist. Ryan is ready to accept Gates’s February proposals on cuts, as well as those of 2009 — though those proposals ended the F-22 fighter line, two missile-defense programs, a major Navy surface combatant vessel, the Army’s “future combat system” and other significant capabilities.

Gates also envisions cutting the standing size of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps by a little more than 5 percent.

As a surmise from incomplete data, Obama’s plan would leave defense spending about where it was in real (inflation-adjusted) terms just before the Iraq invasion of 2003. That would mean a real-dollar cut of about 5 percent relative to where it is now. (Ignoring war costs, since they will presumably decline in coming years.)

How might the Obama plan be implemented? It will likely require across-the-board efforts — more base closures, cancellation of at least a few more troubled weapons systems and delays in others, perhaps some belt-tightening by nondeployed military personnel in areas like health care (since their current premiums are extremely low), consolidations of a few more military commands and some efficiencies in nuclear weapons budgets.

But the most tangible way to understand what Obama would likely require — but Ryan would not — is to look at plans for ground forces.

Gates already intends to scale back the size of the standing Army and Marine Corps as the Afghanistan campaign begins winding down. In rough numbers, the combined active-duty strength of about 770,000 would decline by some 45,000. But this is still at least 50,000 larger than under President Bill Clinton.

This would probably have to change as a key element of a new Obama budget. We would gradually have to return to 1990s troop strength to avoid making all the cuts from acquisition accounts, because the military is already using weaponry that is far older than it should be.

Returning to these force levels would hardly amount to gutting defense. Clinton-era ground forces were considered adequate by four defense secretaries (two from each party) — Les Aspin, William Perry, William Cohen and Donald Rumsfeld. They were not adequate for two simultaneous and sustained wars — but the past decade shows that they could be increased fairly quickly (even if Rumsfeld resisted far too long).

They would suffice for one major operation — helping South Korea occupy the North after another Korean war, for example. They could also handle one or more smaller ones — such as participating in a multilateral force to stabilize and patrol the West Bank after a Mideast peace deal or monitoring a cease-fire accord in Kashmir.

They would not require substantial cuts in Air Force and Navy capabilities, which are crucial to stability in the western Pacific and Persian Gulf.

But before moving to a smaller Army and Marine Corps, we need to understand the risks. A smaller ground force could not occupy Iran, if Tehran escalates its terror campaigns enough that we need to consider regime change there. It could not properly sustain two wars like those we have been fighting the past decade. It could not stabilize a collapsing Pakistan — though larger forces might not be able to handle such a scenario, either.

The bottom line: Making deeper defense cuts will mean a real loss of capabilities and more risk. That risk may be, and probably is, acceptable if the defense cuts are part of a broader effort of deficit reduction and economic renewal that strengthens our longer-term national power and security, meaning it should include revenue increases and entitlement cuts.

But the choice should be framed in these terms — and clearly understood — before we make it.