On Defense, What Tea Party Gets Right

Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s 2012 budget proposal includes a plan to cut the base, or peacetime, defense budget in real terms by mid-decade. But the secretary rightly warned against a bidding war to cut military spending by an arbitrarily big number in an effort to reduce the deficit.

Right now, the nation is at war, the economy still needs major stimulus, and there is no consensus on cutting the rest of the federal budget. This is no moment for big reductions.

But in a broader sense, some members of the Tea Party — as well as some liberal Democrats — understand correctly that bigger questions await. Now is the time to begin using congressional hearings to air ideas about how the nation might, in the future, consider deeper cuts to its defense budget as part of an integrated program of fiscal reform and deficit reduction.

The budget radicals are right — our national debt predicament is dire. As Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted, the debt has begun to pose a direct threat to national security.

We are on a path to spend $1 trillion a year on federal interest payments alone by 2020. At that point, our aggregate national debt would roughly equal our gross domestic product, weakening our long-term economic fundamentals. Large defense budgets would become unaffordable. Reducing our debt trajectory is, therefore, as crucial to long-term national security as raising armies and maintaining navies.

Some think that, by finding the proverbial $600 hammers and gold-plated toilet seats in the defense budget, we can achieve major reductions. This is a dream.

To be sure, efficiencies are important, and abuses must be stamped out. Undersecretary of Defense Ashton Carter is now making wise changes to the nation’s approach to buying weapons in this manner.

But even this year’s budget, with its modest economies, includes difficult steps, like raising the premiums that military families must pay for health insurance. And perennial proposals, like bringing more troops home from Germany and Japan, won’t save big money. The next round of cuts will require selectively cutting into muscle — not just excising fat.

But all said, taking calculated risks in defense spending will make sense for the country a few years down the road, if combined with a broader effort at fiscal discipline and shared national sacrifice.

But debate will be needed to understand the choices and the associated risks. For example, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, it may be possible to reverse the increases in the active forces of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps and return to the levels of the Clinton and early Bush years. That would mean cuts of roughly 15 percent, relative to the current combat force structure.

Smaller ground forces have their downsides. They would not be large enough to handle another decade like the one we just experienced without reverting to unpalatable policies, like very high deployment rates for individual soldiers. Nor would they be large enough for unlikely, but hardly inconceivable, operations — like occupying Iran after an invasion or unilaterally rescuing a collapsing Pakistan.

There is a serious case to be made for the ability of such smaller forces to handle future security needs, however. They would be adequate for a single, sustained, large operation of either the Iraq or Afghanistan character, at maximum size. They would also be a sizable, and probably adequate, deterrent against the threat of another North Korean attack on South Korea.

In addition, should larger ground forces be needed, recent history shows that they can be built up by 10 percent to 20 percent reasonably quickly.

Defenders of military spending point to the rise of new powers as one reason to be wary of deep cuts. They are correct. But because it is principally our Air Force and Navy that deter both China and Iran, ground force cuts would not directly affect our ability to deal with these two powers.

So it is wise to get started on fiscal retrenchment this year. But it is also appropriate to begin a bigger debate with an eye on next year’s presidential and congressional elections — as well as the budgets of 2013 and beyond.