Waging war over Pentagon budget cuts

Pentagon budget combatants traded blows Tuesday, with one faction warning of 1 million lost jobs and another arguing that strategic cuts will not damage the world’s most lethal military.

The dueling assessments offered a glimpse of the closing arguments each side will make to the congressional supercommittee that has been tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts by Thanksgiving.

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On one side are the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW). Those organizations are lobbying hard against further defense budget cuts and released a report Tuesday conducted by a George Mason University economist that concluded more reductions could push the U.S. economy into a recession.

Firing from the other side is the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA), which unveiled its own report that concluded “modest changes” to how the military does its work and to its missions would produce big savings while keeping national security strong.

If the supercommittee fails, automatic federal spending cuts would be triggered, including a national-security cut of about $600 billion. When added to the $350 billion in defense cuts set in motion by the August debt deal, the total cut would approach $1 trillion over a decade.

Should that “doomsday” scenario, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called it, occur, weapon programs would be cut and defense-aerospace firms would be forced to lay off workers.

In 2013 alone, the total impact of those terminations would increase the nation’s unemployment rate by 0.6 percent, according to the study from a  George Mason economist.

“Our analysis reveals bleak outcomes for both the defense industry and the economy as a whole if the budget sequestration trigger is pulled and $1 trillion is cut from defense,” said George Mason economist Stephen Fuller.

The study was based on a yearly reduction of $45 billion from Pentagon accounts that funnel funds to weapons programs.

More than 1 million jobs would be lost in 2013 alone, according to the AIA-George Mason report, including over 352,000 jobs from the aerospace-defense sector and firms that directly supply it with parts and subsystems.

The first year of the cuts, which would be made in 2013, would put a significant dent in the gross domestic product (GDP) growth that is projected for next year, according to AIA and George Mason. 

“The spending cuts of the Budget Control Act enacted last summer place at risk the jobs of highly skilled, highly motivated workers,” Tom Buffenbarger, IAMAW president, said Tuesday. “We can ill afford to idle these men and women and the machines they operate indefinitely.”

The report points out a handful of states would lose the most jobs, including three electoral swing states: Virginia (122,800), Florida (39,200) and California (36,200).

In stark contrast to the AIA-George Mason report — and that faction’s hawkish Republican allies on Capitol Hill — the Project on Defense Alternatives study calls cuts larger than $1 trillion to the Pentagon budget over a decade “reasonable.”

“Modest changes to U.S. military strategy and global posture implemented over the next 10 years can reliably offer deficit-reducing savings from the Pentagon budget ranging from $73 billion a year to $118 billion a year,” the PDA report stated. “When these savings are added to other savings available which are not related to strategic change the totals are from $92 billion to $145 billion annually.”

The organization’s report includes a sweeping list of force structure — people and platforms — and strategy changes.

PDA recommends returning the Army and Marine Corps to pre-9/11 levels, arguing the ground forces should not be sized for wars that look like the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The organization also concludes the past 10 years proves it is unwise to undertake those kinds of land force-intensive counterinsurgency and stability operations.

The project recommends shrinking the U.S. military footprint in Europe and Asia, while cutting annual defense R&D and intelligence budgets by 11 and 15 percent, respectively.

PDA also called for officials to shrink the size of America’s strategic nuclear arsenal.

“The upper limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads in the New Start Treaty [with Moscow] is larger than is needed for deterrence,” the report stated, “and is therefore a misallocation of military resources.”

The organization called for a 230-ship Navy, smaller than the current goal of 313 ships, while also pushing for a smaller tactical fighter fleet than is planned for the decades to come under Pentagon designs.

“None of these strategy and global posture changes would produce a ‘hollow’ force, nor mean that the armed forces of the United States would be anything other than the most-effective, best-equipped and best-trained in the world,” according to the PDA report.

There is ample room to cut an annual Pentagon budget that has been inflated by 40 percent since 1998 and 30 percent since 2001, PDA said.

PDA co-director Carl Conetta, during a conference call with reporters Tuesday, said a national security strategy that seeks to change global situations and societies is “unsustainable.” He urged a return to the approach Washington used up until the mid-1990s, which was “more selective” and focused heavily on “defense, deterrence and crisis-response.”

What’s more, Conetta said, the debate about Pentagon spending “has become political,” with Republicans looking to “bludgeon Democrats, who run from” such debates because of a perception they are weak on such issues.

Gordon Adams, who assisted with the PDA’s work, said “politics are alive and well in Washington.” 

Adams, who ran defense and security budgets for the Clinton administration, predicted that even if the supercommittee fails, it is unlikely the full $600 billion cut will ever be implemented.