How to Cut the Pentagon Budget Better Than Sequestration Does

A deeply flawed conventional wisdom is developing that despite warnings from former defense secretary Leon Panetta and others that the sky would fall if sequestration occurred, automatic spending cuts are not so bad after all. By this logic, not only should the cuts in defense as well as domestic “discretionary” accounts continue, but it would also be okay to implement automatic and across-the-board cuts in the next fiscal year, too, starting in October.

Yet the path we are on is far from acceptable.

While some of this year’s roughly $46 billion in defense cuts from sequestration reflect reasonable pruning, many of the reductions are not sustainable. Savings from policies such as dramatically reducing training for most military units this summer are not catastrophic if done once, but they cannot be continued without fundamentally jeopardizing military readiness.

Then there are savings that appear real but are not, such as deferred overhauls of major weaponry and deferred maintenance at bases. We can put off some repairs, but most will have to be done eventually — and may be more expensive if deferred. Then there are savings made on the backs of those with limited ability to make their voices heard: furloughs of civilian government employees top this list. In addition to being highly disruptive to government operations, these furloughs suggest that federal workers are second-class citizens (even as members of Congress can keep their entire paychecks for the year). Graduating students at public policy schools and other worthy individuals are being denied opportunities to work for the federal government due to hiring freezes.

Together, these temporary savings, faux savings and unfair savings represent at least half the $46 billion in cutbacks that the Defense Department is experiencing.

The military budget can be cut beyond the initial reductions from the 2011 Budget Control Act. But continued sequestration or reductions of comparable magnitude such as those resulting from the Simpson-Bowles proposals go too far. Such plans tend to make sweeping claims that, because defense spending remains reasonably high by historic and international standards, it can be cut much further. This reasoning is too vague for a world in which crises continue throughout the broader Middle East, U.S. forces remain engaged in Afghanistan, North Korea continues to nuclearize, and China continues its rise. It is time to get specific about further defense cuts.

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