Brookings scholar floats 10 percent cut to defense budget

The 10 percent budget plan was unveiled at a Brookings panel discussion in which he and two other Brookings scholars argued that the burgeoning national debt poses a threat to national security.

Scholar Alice Rivlin, former budget director for President Clinton, said that a sovereign debt crisis, brought on once the U.S. is forced to sell Treasury bonds at sky-high interest rates, would deeply impair the nation's ability to pay for its military down the road.

“The greatest national security threat we face is an economic catastrophe … and we are facing an economic catastrophe,” Rivlin said of the rising national debt.

She said that for a deficit-cutting plan to be adopted soon, the defense budget must be on the table along with reductions to social spending and entitlements like Medicare.

Scholar Robert Kagan agreed that the debt poses a national security threat, but he argued that it may not make sense to target defense spending.

He argued that the U.S. should be prepared to fight simultaneous wars in North Korea and Iran while being able to keep up a possible arms race with China.

O’Hanlon argued that a 15 percent cut in forces would still allow the U.S. to invade Iran, but that even with current capabilities it would not be able to occupy the country. That would take a military with twice as many troops, he argued.

Regarding a possible second Korean War, he argued that South Korea would bear the brunt of any occupation of the north should it come to that.

O’Hanlon said that those who argue that defense is the top priority of the federal government, and that therefore its budget must be sacrosanct, risk unraveling any bipartisan consensus on budget cutting. If it is off the table, “pretty soon you have lost the spirit of shared sacrifice,” he said, as others will say that entitlement or social spending must be off the table.

He said cuts should begin after 2012, as the economy has begun to improve.

Weapons modernization should be reconfigured to take into account that certain missions are less likely than they were in the past, such as marine amphibious assault, he said. Because of this, the Pentagon must be prepared to cancel troubled projects such as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and the Osprey helicopter.

Kagan argued that it is runaway medical spending on seniors that is the biggest driver of the debt, not military spending.

“Saving $55 billion a year so that the Defense budget can make its share of the sacrifice is too risky,” he said.

Rivlin said that she is not at all sure that Congress will embrace a budget compromise.

“What you saw from the Tea Party was statements that we need to balance the budget but no changes to Medicare, no changes to Social Security, no cuts to Defense, no tax increases. I don’t know what they are talking about,” she said.

Kagan said that incoming House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has made clear that defense cuts should not be part of the conversation, at least while there are two wars ongoing.

“Their position is very incoherent right now,” he said of the incoming House GOP majority.