For the first time since the end of the cold war, there’s a real possibility that the post-9/11 fever that sent US military spending shooting upward will break and that the Pentagon’s budget will fall sharply. But it won’t be easy.
On the surface, it might not seem as if cuts are in the offing. After thirteen consecutive years of growth, between 1998 and 2011, spending on the military has reached an all-time high, and for 2012 Defense Secretary Robert Gates is asking Congress to authorize yet another increase, seeking $553 billion, plus an additional $118 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, for a total of $671 billion. Not only is the White House seeking more money; Congress—even with the deficit-obsessed, Tea Party/Republican majority in the House—has so far refused to wield the budget ax against the Defense Department.
Yet longtime analysts say a confluence of events has emerged that will change that. “Five years from now, we’ll turn around and the defense budget will be a lot lower than we thought it was going to be five years ago, and we’ll look back and say, Wow,” says Gordon Adams, a Stimson Center fellow and American University professor who’s been analyzing military spending for four decades.
That’s not because the military-industrial complex is ready for cuts. The so-called Iron Triangle, the powerful nexus that includes the Pentagon, military contractors and lobbyists, and hawks on the Congressional armed services committees, will resist cuts every step of the way. “If you leave it to the Iron Triangle, it won’t come down,” says Adams. “But it will come down, and what will drive it are the outside variables, which create a tidal wave that hits defense spending.” What’s creating that wave, say Adams and other experts, are two intersecting currents. A politics of debt and deficit reduction has taken hold in Washington, tied to an economic crisis that has convinced many that the United States can no longer afford an oversized Pentagon. And for the public, the decade-long trauma of 9/11, which fueled the “war on terror,” has finally begun to ease. War-weary Americans have turned decisively against the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, according to polls, voters support cuts in military spending. All that creates space on Capitol Hill to take on the Iron Triangle.
Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the liberal Center for Defense Information and editor of the new book The Pentagon Labyrinth, points to major studies by think tanks and task forces calling for sweeping military cuts as a sign that things are changing. “We’re in a period of a shift in tectonic plates when it comes to the defense budget,” he says.
In 2010 a series of high-powered reports called for big cuts in military spending, with each projecting reductions of 15–20 percent of the Pentagon budget. In June the Sustainable Defense Task Force, organized by Representatives Barney Frank and Ron Paul, outlined a plan to cut $960 billion between 2011 and 2020, including cuts in the nuclear arsenal, troop deployments in Europe and Asia, the size of the Navy, a wide range of costly weapons systems and reforms in military pay scales and the Pentagon’s healthcare system. In September the libertarian Cato Institute published a report, “Budgetary Savings From Military Restraint,” that outlined $1.2 trillion in cuts over ten years, including a one-third reduction in the troop strength of the Army and Marines. In November a debt-reduction task force organized by the centrist, establishment-oriented Bipartisan Policy Center released a plan, “Restoring America’s Future,” that proposed a five-year freeze in Defense Department spending at current levels and then a cap on future growth, which would save $1.1 trillion over a decade.