Cutting defense spending by 10 percent would debilitate America’s military

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Having failed by overwhelming margins in both the House and the Senate to muster sufficient votes to reduce the defense budget by 10 percent, the left wing of the Democratic Party expects to try again next year. Two of the most progressive House Democrats, Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Mark Pocan (Wisc.), who in July promulgated the creation of a Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, have announced their determination to press their case in the next Congress. They anticipate reinforcements to their cause once the 2020 election results are in.  

Pocan also co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and can count on the support of virtually all of its members. He and Congresswoman Lee also can expect assistance from their kindred spirit, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is expected to take over the chairmanship of the Budget Committee if the Democrats take control of the Senate in 2021.

Pocan has asserted that “from unnecessary new nuclear weapons to the Space Force to the ballooning use of outside contractors, our Pentagon spending is growing more rapidly than needed with abundant waste and endless wars. With this new caucus, we hope to lead Congress in decreasing and redirecting the defense budget.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has added her voice to the call for defense cuts. In a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs, she argues that “modernizing the military would free up billions of dollars.”

It is all too easy to speak in terms of reducing defense spending by large percentages. Cutting 10 percent of current defense spending certainly would free up large sums. If a reduction of that magnitude were to be repeated in each of the five years of the Future Years Defense Program, it would exceed $350 billion. To reach that figure, however, would require nothing less than the emasculation of the military.

It would not be enough to terminate the F-35 fighter program — though even Clinton proposes keeping a small number of these fifth-generation aircraft — mothball three aircraft carriers, stop all strategic nuclear modernization, and, as Pocan would have it, eliminate the Space Force. At most, these reductions would total around $100 billion over the next five years. Where would the remaining billions come from?

In fact, a 10 percent cut would lead to massive civilian and military personnel reductions, a hollow military, and a major force drawdown in East Asia, Europe and the Middle East. At best, the United States might be able to muster sufficient force to hold its own — though not necessarily prevail — in a confrontation with Russia or China. It certainly would not be able to do so if it also were involved in a stand-off with Iran or North Korea, or some as yet unknown adversary, at the same time.

An enfeebled American military would undermine its deterrent against Russian, Chinese or Iranian adventurism. It would encourage North Korea and Iran to proceed with their nuclear programs. It would erode whatever vestiges of confidence in American leadership that will have survived the Trump era: Both treaty allies and friendly states would be reluctant to cast their lot with Washington in any confrontation with China or Russia. And it would undermine the effectiveness of American diplomacy that, ironically, those who would reduce defense spending wish to empower.

There is certainly a case to be made for employing defense funds more efficiently. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s “night court” budget exercises have attempted to do just that. No doubt there is additional potential for efficiencies that have yet to be identified and implemented. But meat-axe cuts that superficially sound appealing, but have little analysis behind them, are an entirely different matter. And if those cuts were ever to be made, no one would be happier than those who would wish America ill.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Barbara Lee Bernie Sanders China defense budget cuts Defense spending Hillary Clinton Iran Mark Esper Mark Pocan progressives Russia

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