By Jeremy Herb and Carlo Muñoz - 02/25/13 10:00 AM EST
The sequester is about to take a big bite out of the Pentagon, putting the military’s dire warnings about a “hollowed out” force to the ultimate test.
Barring an unexpected last-second deal, across-the-board automatic spending cuts to be implemented Friday will reduce this year’s proposed $525 billion defense budget by $46 billion, bringing funding down to a level not seen since 2007.
If the full decade’s worth of cuts goes forward, projected spending would be reduced by roughly $500 billion.
The question, which has been a matter of fierce debate, is whether the military can swallow such cuts without weakening national security.
Pentagon officials and defense hawks argue the cuts will turn the United States into a “second-rate” power, particularly because the cut will come after a $487 billion reduction in projected defense spending over the next decade.
“We’ve gone past cutting the meat. We’re into the bone,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told reporters this month.
Advocates for a smaller defense budget say returning annual spending to 2007 levels in a targeted approach is appropriate with the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They say the military can get smaller and smarter when it does not need to prepare for large-scale occupations.
The only thing both sides agree upon is that the across-the-board cuts are a bone-headed way to reduce spending.
The 2011 law that raised the debt ceiling and introduced the sequester requires the Pentagon to make blanket cuts of approximately 9.4 percent, meaning it cannot target a program or two for elimination to ease the reductions.
As a result, the Pentagon warned 800,000 civilian workers last week that they can expect to be furloughed one day per week through the end of September.
The Pentagon so far has not argued that Congress should give it the flexibility to target cuts, at least partly because this would amount to an acknowledgement that the level of cuts is acceptable. Whether targeted or across-the-board, the Pentagon says the sequester knife would simply cut too deep.
Others disagree — at least with regards to the math.
“Would it force you to make some tough trade-offs? Yes,” said Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration Pentagon official and defense analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.
He said some cuts could be made “that would not lead to the collapse of the military,” particularly if they are accompanied by a new strategy for a smaller military.
The heart of the debate concerns the kind of military the United States needs in a complex 21st-century environment where the threats continue to evolve.
“You have to not just say, ‘If we go back to 2006 levels everything will be fine,’” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top House Armed Services Democrat, said in an interview. “If you’re going to do it, you need to say: ‘This is the requirement we’re not going to meet.’ ”
The end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a greater emphasis on special operations and drone strikes mean the U.S. military does not need as many ground troops, analysts in favor of cuts say.
This would force the United States to pull back from the front lines and allow other countries to take the lead, something President Obama advocated in the fight against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya.
“We would need to reduce our forward presence,” said Chris Preble, a defense analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. “What that means is expecting, and to some degree demanding, that other countries step forward and take responsibility for security in their region.”
The danger with such cuts is that it’s impossible to know when the U.S. military will again need a large-scale ground force.
One reason hawks believe the cuts could hollow out the military is that they’ve seen it before. A shrinking force after World War II, the Vietnam War and the Cold War left the United States unprepared for future conflicts.
A large U.S. presence spread across the globe also provides a deterrent that can keep conflicts from starting in the first place.
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said that the troop cuts Pentagon officials say could come under a sequester-sized cut would leave the United States at best able to handle a single major conflict and a coalition-type operation like Libya without pushing the force to its limit.
The biggest drivers of personnel costs are rising pay levels and health and benefits increases, which are all politically difficult to cut.
Pay hikes and expanded benefits boosted per-person costs 57 percent from 2001 to 2012, according to Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
A much more popular target for reductions is the Pentagon’s weapons programs.
If the F-35 fighter, littoral combat ship or V-22 Osprey programs were reduced or eliminated, it could provide huge savings, said Carl Conetta, director of the Project on Defense Alternatives.
Conetta said that the military would not lose much capability by reducing the number of F-35s it purchases, or cutting the number of ships in the Navy to about 230 from the current fleet of 282.
Yet others say such cuts would open the United States up to security risks.
The United States has unmatched airpower capabilities, but cutting into the F-35 could help rivals like China eventually catch up.
The F-35 fighter is designed to replace five legacy warplanes and be the primary aircraft for the Army, Navy and Marines for decades. Cutting its capability would force the Pentagon “back to the drawing board” to decide what missions it can perform, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
One of the most heated debates over military spending centers on the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Budget-cutters argue the need for nuclear weapons delivered by air, land and sea has gone the way of the Soviet Union. Eliminating one leg of the nuclear triad would lead to hefty savings because all three require modernization.
“The idea of having a triad at the start was to complicate the calculus on the other side,” said Conetta. “The other side right now is not the Soviet Union.”
Nuclear proponents argue cutting nukes is a wrong-footed approach, given North Korea’s latest provocations and Iran’s push for a bomb.
“Since its inception, our triad of nuclear forces have proven exceptionally effective in providing strategic deterrence to our adversaries and assurance to our allies,” U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. Bob Kehler said in a November 2012 speech.