What Cutting Defense Really Means

How much more, if at all, should the U.S. cut its military budget as part of comprehensive deficit-reduction efforts?

A typical observer can be forgiven some confusion on this issue. Even the recent history of defense spending isn’t clear. Some say that the 2011 Budget Control Act cut $487 billion from the military over the next 10 years, while others claim that the armed forces will lose nothing from their core budget because the budget was bloated before 2011 anyway. In fact, the most accurate figure for cuts under current law is $350 billion over 10 years, as measured relative to a standard Congressional Budget Office baseline that assumes modest growth for inflation.

Further confusing the issue are competing arguments over how damaging additional cuts may be. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has voiced adamant opposition to any further reductions that would take annual defense spending much below $550 billion. Yet as a White House official in the 1990s he was content with a $400 billion annual budget (all figures are adjusted for inflation).

Meanwhile Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has questioned whether the U.S. could remain a superpower if the military loses another $500 billion (or 8% of its budget) over the next 10 years. Yet in 2010 the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici commissions endorsed cuts of that very magnitude.

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