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Nibbling at the Pentagon's Fat | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Nibbling at the Pentagon's Fat

Like President Obama’s announcement earlier this month, whuich drew angry denunciations from hawks, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s more detailed budget ideas for the Pentagon’s going forward ought be seen as an opening bid. Anyone concerned about the bloated budget at the Department of Defense will be disappointed, but there’s a great opportunity for anti-war activists in the next few years to build a coalition to effect real cuts in military spending.

Contrast Obama’s and Panetta’s tentative cuts to Mitt Romney’s comment that he’d pay for expanded military spending by eliminating “Obamacare,” and you get an idea of how easy it could be for Obama to argue in favor of a “peace dividend” to pay for expanded unemployment benefits and a stronger social safety net. In an election year, however, Obama is not likely to do that, more than rhetorically, sticking to his 2012–13 plan for very slight defense cuts. At least in an election year.

Thanks to the Project on Defense Alternatives, we have a pretty good idea of what the long-term trends look like. Base-budget spending skyrocketed 55 percent between 1998 and 2010, adjusted for inflation. (Unadjusted, Pentagon spending pretty much doubled in twelve years.) And “base budgets” don’t include the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on war in Iraq and Afghanistan. As PDA notes, Panetta’s new budget plan sets 2013 spending at $525 billion, which is 46 percent above the 1998 level.” Some cut!

Spending will drop just $6 billion in 2013 compared to 2012. On the bright side, that’s the first reduction in Pentagon spending since the 1990s. But as the Center for American Progress points out:

The Pentagon’s base budget request will be $525 billion for fiscal year 2013, down $6 billion from FY 2012. The problem is that this FY 2013 request will represent the only actual cut in the next decade. After FY 2013, the Pentagon’s budget will once again rise steadily, by between $9 billion and $14 billion annually over the subsequent years in nominal terms.

Panetta’s projections have been mischaracterized as representing a drastic ‘cut’ in military spending. In reality, these $487 billion in reductions over 10 years come from projected growth of military spending. As a result, even when adjusted for inflation, Panetta’s reductions halt the growth in the Pentagon’s budget, but they do not bring the budget down much from its current level.

The core of the cuts, as the New York Times points out, include slowing the growth of military pay, reducing the size of the Army and the Marines, and some reductions in expensive weapons systems:

[Panetta] said that the Army would be reduced over five years to 490,000 troops, down from a peak of 570,000, and that the Marines would be cut to 182,000, down from 202,000. (Ground forces would still be slightly larger than they were before 9/11.) The Pentagon initially will buy fewer F-35 Joint Strike Fighter stealth jets, which are not expected to be in service until at least 2017 and have the distinction of being one of the costliest weapons programs in history. In the Navy, 14 warships will be either retired early or built more slowly.

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