Warning on Defense Budget Cuts

In a remarkable turnaround from the national security politics of just a decade ago, a consensus group of Democrats and Republicans has recently opted to carry out deep cuts in military spending as perhaps the central plank in the nation’s new effort to reduce deficits and shore up economic strength.

Gone is the hawkish consensus that followed 2001 and led to a near doubling of the defense budget over the next half-dozen years, as the nation found itself in not one but two wars. Gone, it might seem, is the predictable Republican tendency to support defense at all costs and always to ensure that GOP political candidates are seen as tougher than their Democratic rivals. Gone is the notion that an incumbent president seeking re-election must avoid cutting military spending in a time of war.

Now it appears that the military budget may be cut by more than half a trillion dollars over a decade, even more than the $400 billion in 12-year savings that President Obama had proposed in his April 13 speech on the subject – and perhaps even by up to a trillion dollars over that time period. That is above and beyond savings that will result naturally, and indeed are already resulting, from troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. And these are real cuts. The administration’s earlier cuts, formalized most recently in Mr. Obama’s February budget proposal to Congress for fiscal 2012 and beyond, had already taken away most of the real growth in the longer-term military budget. That is, they had allowed for projected inflation, but not much growth beyond that.

This means that even the earlier plan necessitated reductions in programs and activities of the Department of Defense, since most defense costs rise at about 2 percent a year aboveinflation. That is not a law of physics, but it is a well-established historical tendency due to the fact that many areas of defense activity – health care, environmental restoration, weapons purchases, pay for troops and full-time civilians – do tend to rise slightly faster than the inflation rate. The bottom line is that additional real-dollar cuts of at least half a trillion dollars over 10 years will require about 10 percent reductions in the size, activity levels and weapons acquisition ambitions of the Department of Defense, relative to what exists today and would likely have existed tomorrow given previous plans.

Ten-year defense cuts of up to half a trillion dollars are not necessarily undoable. Some of that can be found by eliminating pure waste. Some can be found by steps like asking nondeployed military personnel and nonwounded veterans to pay health care insurance premiums more in line with what the rest of the country considers standard. Make no mistake about it, however: The bulk of it will have to be found by cutting real military capability and as a result, accepting real additional risk to the country’s security. There are ways to make such cuts while minimizing the adverse consequences for the United States and its allies. But to argue that cuts of this magnitude can be made risk-free, as some purport, is not consistent with the realities of the situation.

Two warnings must be highlighted up front. First, in my judgment at least, cuts greater than 10 percent would be increasingly problematic and as such, ill-advised. There are budget plans calling for larger cuts than this amount – that is, larger than half a trillion dollars over a decade – and they strike me as unsound. They would not be consistent with what should be treated as irreducible requirements in American defense policy – chiefly, winding down current wars responsibly, deterring Iran, hedging against a rising China, protecting global sea lanes, attacking terrorists and checking state sponsors of terror, and ensuring a strong all-volunteer military as well as a flexible and world-class defense scientific and industrial base.

Consider two examples. With cuts of up to 10 percent, one can reduce the U.S. ground forces to 1990s levels as a reasonable policy approach. Deeper reductions in force structure, however, would jeopardize the American ability to deter one large war in a place like Korea or even Iran while handling numerous smaller and more likely operations at the same time. With cuts of up to 10 percent, one might for example curtail the planned purchases of a plane like the F-35 joint strike fighter from its current target of nearly 2,500 airframes to perhaps 1,200 to 1,500 (making greater use of drones and existing technologies). Again, that may be acceptable, if somewhat risky, too. But with deeper cuts, the entire program (and many others) might be put at risk. We do not want to signal China, Iran or anyone else that we are squandering our technological dominance in military affairs, for so long a cornerstone of our deterrent and war-fighting advantages.

Second, because even 10 percent reductions in the typical annual defense budget of the future would entail some risk to America’s global interests, they can only be justified on national security grounds if the nation’s economy is strengthened substantially in the process. In other words, it may make sense to accept greater near-term military risk in order to shore up the economic foundations of longer-term national power that are essential to the country’s future strength and security. Nations with hollow economies cannot be secure indefinitely, so it is legitimate to view the debt as a national security threat and economic renewal as a national security imperative. This logic does support some level of defense spending reductions. However, this line of argument only works if projected deficits are reduced enough to make a notable difference in America’s economic prognosis. And that is only possible if broad-based deficit reduction occurs. In short, 10 percent defense cuts are only justifiable if they are accompanied by entitlement and tax reform that reduce spending and increase revenue through these other elements of the federal budget.

The nation’s debt is too big to contain on the back of the defense budget and other so-called “discretionary” programs alone. As such, the current proclivity of some to ask the core defense budget – which constitutes only 15 percent of federal spending – to provide up to half of future deficit reduction is unwarranted and needs to be revised.