The Pentagon is getting nervous about the implications of the slash-and-burn budget deal signed by President Obama this week. Because the deal sets up a mechanism to apportion $1.2 trillion in further cuts equally between defense and other programs—which means a $600 billion hit for the Department of Defense over the next ten years—the leaders of DOD are sending out signals that even that relatively modest amount would be, as the New York Times reports today, “cataclysmic.”
Of course, it would be no such thing. Even on top of the $400 billion in defense cuts that Obama called for in April, it’s easy to find a trillion dollars in the Pentagon’s pockets over the next decade or so. During that time, military spending is scheduled to top $6 trillion, even not counting the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I reported in The Nation, there have been several detailed proposals, from liberals and conservatives alike, to cut at least $1 trillion from defense by 2020, amounting to a modest 15 percent reduction. (In the 1990s, after the cold war, defense spending fell by more than one-third, before rising again in 1999 and skyrocketing after 9/11.)
Secretary of Defense Panetta, who’s known as a flinty-eyed budget cutter, is acting like the military’s defender-in-chief in his new post, even though he (and his new deputy secretary, Ashton Carter, also a budget hawk) undoubtedly realize that the Pentagon is facing some serious slashing and burning. In a letter to DOD employees posted yesterday, Panetta suggested that the touted $600 billion in cuts is only meant as a political bogeyman to scare Congressional deal-makers into making other cuts. “This potential deep cut in defense spending is not meant as policy,” he wrote. “Rather it is designed to be unpalatable to spur responsible, balanced deficit reduction and avoid misguided cuts to our security.” Even so, when the new Congressional hit team of twelve super-members starts looking to save money, it’s going to be next to impossible to avoid major cuts at DOD.
Still, it ain’t gonna be easy. Bill Hartung, a noted defense expert writing in the Huffington Post, says: “The good news is that the Pentagon budget is finally on the table in deficit reduction talks. But it will take a lot more hard work to ensure that it is truly reduced as part of ongoing negotiations over the size and shape of the federal budget.” Needless to say, the so-called Iron Triangle that bolsters the DOD budget—the armed services committees in Congress, the defense contractors and the military itself—will join forces to fiercely resist serious cuts. Already, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative McKeon and the chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, Representative Bill Young, both Republicans, have vowed to fight reductions. And a coalition of thinktanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and Bill Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative have established a group called Defending Defense, and the lobbyists for the industry in Washington are mobilizing to fight back, led (as the Washington Post reports) by Tony Podesta, the brother of the head of the Center for American Progress, whose firm represents major defense contractors.
The whole debt agreement is so foggy and indistinct that it’s impossible to figure out exactly what might happen at DOD. As Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, points out: “The debt deal kicks the defense budget can down the road for this and future Congresses. People should not read precision and certainty into a political deal specifically designed to be uncertain and indistinct.” But in response to assertions that DOD will face cuts of at least $850 billion in this round, Wheeler adds flatly:
“There will not be $850 billion in reduction in the Pentagon budget as a result of this debt deal. The actual amount is unknown. The actual amount will be determined by this and future Congresses; while the political winds now favoring the Pentagon relative to other forms of discretionary spending may change, the most likely alterations to DOD spending appear today to be significantly less than the much touted $850 billion.”
Nevertheless, cuts are coming. This round, between now and the 2012 elections, may not see significant cuts at DOD, but in the following years deeper cuts are likely, as I reported in my Nation piece earlier this year. Many conservatives, such as Senator Tom Coburn (R.-OK), have backed $1 trillion-plus in cuts, and more and more national security experts realize that the bloated Pentagon budget is unsustainable. For progressives, cuts of $1 trillion (ca. one-sixth of the military spending) ought to be viewed as the minimum acceptable, with a view toward cuts of one-third or more. One thing to keep in mind: every dollar cut from the DOD budget is one dollar that deficit-crazed budget hawks won’t have to cut from Medicare, Social Security, education, the environment and other acconts.