Washington is pushing the panic button, claiming austerity is hollowing out our armed forces and our national security is at risk. That was the message Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered last week when he announced that the Army would shrink to levels not seen since before World War II. Headlinesabout this crisis followed in papers like The New York Times and members of Congress issued statements swearing that they would never allow our security to be held hostage to the budget-cutting process.
Yet a careful look at budget figures for the US military—a bureaucratic juggernaut accounting for 57 percent of the federal discretionary budget and nearly 40 percent of all military spending on this planet—shows that such claims have been largely fictional. Despite cries of doom since the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration surfaced in Washington in 2011, the Pentagon has seen few actual reductions, and there is no indication that will change any time soon.
This piece of potentially explosive news has, however, gone missing in action—and the “news” that replaced it could prove to be one of the great bait-and-switch stories of our time.
The Pentagon Cries Wolf: Round One
As sequestration first approached, the Pentagon issued deafening cries of despair. Looming cuts would “inflict lasting damage on our national defense and hurt the very men and women who protect this country,” said Secretary Hagel in December 2012.
Sequestration went into effect in March 2013 and was slated to slice $54.6 billion from the Pentagon’s $550 billion larger-than-the-economy-of-Sweden budget. But Congress didn’t have the stomach for it, so lawmakers knocked the cuts down to $37 billion. (Domestic programs like Head Start and cancer research received no such special dispensation.)
By law, the cuts were to be applied across the board. But that, too, didn’t go as planned. The Pentagon was able to do something hardly recognizable as a cut at all. Having the luxury of unspent funds from previous budgets—known obscurely as “prior year unobligated balances”—officials reallocated some of the cuts to those funds instead.