Report calls on Pentagon to prepare for possible debt-deal spending cuts

Top Pentagon brass should craft plans so the Defense Department will be ready if a trigger in the debt-ceiling law is pulled, a move that would return the annual military budget to 2007 levels, according to a new report.

The debt-ceiling legislation signed into law on Tuesday contains no firm figure for how deeply Pentagon and national security agency budgets will shrink over the next decade. But the White House and senior Democratic lawmakers say it’ll be $350 billion.


If a yet-to-be-formed “supercommittee” of House and Senate members fails to come up with a deficit-reduction plan by late November, the debt-ceiling law requires massive cuts to several troughs of federal spending — including national security agencies. Those cuts could total up to an additional $500 billion over a decade.

Should the panel fail, pulling the trigger, the Pentagon budget would revert to its 2007 level of around $472 billion, according to a new report from Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budget Assessments.

That level would be $99 billion less than the $571 billion the Obama administration projected for 2013 Pentagon spending in its last long-term spending plan, which was submitted to Congress in February.

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The trigger cuts would hold the annual Pentagon budget at that level — except for small inflation adjustments  for the next eight years, Harrison calculates.

“Given the abruptness of the cuts imposed under the trigger and the real possibility that Congress may not be able to reach a deficit reduction compromise in time to avoid the trigger, DoD should immediately begin contingency planning for how to handle such a reduction,” Harrison wrote in the report.

During a Thursday news conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the trigger is a “doomsday mechanism” for the Pentagon.

Pentagon officials have yet to begin drawing up worst-case scenario plans in case the cuts are enacted.

But senior brass are holding informal talks to discuss how the Pentagon would handle an additional $500 billion cut, Panetta said.

The debt deal signed into law Tuesday by President Obama has intensified a debate among Washington’s national security sector about just how much Pentagon spending is needed at a time when the Iraq war is winding down, the Afghanistan war is at the beginning of its end and al Qaeda has been significantly hobbled.

“The [debt] legislation is designed to impose deep and risk-laden cuts on our nation’s defense. The real-world consequence is that the American people will not be provided the level of defense they need and deserve. The nation’s vital security interests are likely to be undermined according to the debt-ceiling deal,” according to Baker Spring of the Heritage Foundation. “History has repeatedly shown that these kinds of reductions in defense are penny-wise and pound-foolish, because they often serve to increase the likelihood of conflict. And weakness that invites war is much more expensive than deterring our enemies by maintaining an adequate defense budget all along.”

But other analysts disagree, saying the envisioned cuts would be manageable and leave America with the world's most lethal fighting force.

“Persistent conflict is not a strategy. It’s just rhetoric, wrapped in irrational fear, that justifies unlimited budgets and no priorities for missions or force planning. It is the absence of serious thinking about strategy and missions,” said Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center. 

“Without a serious consideration of strategy and the missions that flow from it, the services have no justification for arguing a specific level of budgets is too little, too much or just right.”