Smart spending for national security

Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have written to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel asking him to lay out in detail the consequences of the department having to reduce its fiscal 2014 budget from $526 billion, the level requested by the Pentagon, to $474 billion, the 2014 cap imposed by the sequester. This reduction in planned expenditures might be necessary should Congress and the Obama administration fail to reach a grand bargain that would repeal sequestration by the next fiscal year.

Some people, like former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and current Army Secretary John McHugh, argue that the reductions mandated by sequestration will be irresponsible and devastating, and cannot be allowed to happen. From their letter, it appears Levin and Inhofe feel the same way. However, if the Pentagon plans for the reductions and makes them in a smart way they can easily be absorbed. In fact, had they done that this year, they would not have to be furloughing people or cutting back training hours as they are now doing; there are at least four reasons why this is so.

First, $474 billion in the base or non-war budget is more than enough to defend the nation in 2014; in real terms, that is what we spent in fiscal 2007, the next to last year of the Bush administration, when we were still fighting in Iraq (along with Afghanistan). In real terms, it is also more than this nation spent on average during the Cold War, even during President Reagan’s buildup in the 1980s, when we faced an existential threat in the Soviet Union. Such a level of base defense spending would also leave the U.S. accounting for 40 percent of the world’s military expenditures.

Second, the Pentagon should have already been making these hard choices. While everyone hoped that the Congress would not be so irresponsible as to let sequestration take effect, the fact is that it has been the law of the land since the summer of 2011, almost two years ago; there is no excuse for not having prepared for its impact.  Moreover, many in the Obama administration feared that, if the Pentagon showed how the cuts could be made, supporters of sequestration would realize that its effects would not be that devastating. Instead, they presented apocalyptic scenarios about what would happen if sequestration went into effect, hoping that these ominous warnings would galvanize the Republicans into making a comprehensive deal on spending cuts and revenues. For example, Panetta was conjuring up images of what the U.S. military was like before World War I, in the hopes of scaring people into a deal.

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Third, the nation does not face any existential threats and the Pentagon is still buying too many weapons and keeping too many people on the payroll that are ill-suited to addressing the asymmetrical threats we face. For example, we still have nearly 5,000 nuclear weapons, despite the fact that strategists at the U.S. Air War College have concluded we only need 312 for deterrence. Likewise, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former head of the Strategic Command, said 800 nuclear weapons is more than enough. Why do we still keep 70,000 troops in Europe more than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Our active-duty ground forces are also too large, and can be reduced to below their pre-9/11 levels given the proven effectiveness of our reserve component in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon also continues to rush the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter into production, despite design flaws and testing failures, even when we are the only nation in the world currently operating fifth-generation fighters and other stealthy aircraft.  Why are we forcing the Navy to buy a version of this plane when they would rather continue buying the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet? Alongside these major weapons programs the Pentagon continues to spend more in real terms on research and development than it did at the height of the Reagan administration.

Fourth, reducing base defense spending to $474 billion will force the Pentagon to make the hard decisions that its leaders have avoided for the last 15 years, when the base or non-war budget doubled. Even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, admits that this gusher of defense spending has led the Pentagon to make several fiscal blunders. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a retired Navy captain and Inhofe’s predecessor as ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, likewise noted that, “sequestration has occurred, in part, because of a growing public frustration with the culture of waste and inefficiency at the Defense Department.”

No matter how much the U.S. or any nation spends on defense, it cannot buy perfect security.  But returning the base budget to its FY 2007 level after 13 years of real increases, thereby keeping spending above Cold War levels despite the absence of an existential threat, should not be an impossible task. In fact, smart reductions could actually enhance national security, particularly if they play a part in negotiating a comprehensive long-term fiscal plan. Let’s hope that Hagel makes these points clear in his response to Levin and Inhofe.


Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.