Defense on the Chopping Block

Defense on the Chopping Block

Obama and the GOP seem poised to agree on big cuts in Pentagon spending.


In the disgusting spectacle of the talks between President Obama and the Republicans on cutting spending, there’s one bright spot: the Department of Defense is facing serious cuts. 

If one were serious about reducing the deficit without either slashing entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security or raising taxes one penny, here’s a simple solution: cut Pentagon spending by one-third, and voilà! There’s $2 trillion in deficit reduction right there. (By contrast, the protracted and ugly talks between the White House and Congress are projected to reduce the deficit by somewhere between $2.5 trillion and $4 trillion, depending on whose plan you look at.)

Of course, no one is seriously considering slashing the DOD budget by a third. But serious cuts are likely, as much as $900 billion, or about 15 percent of the projected $6 trillion in military spending over the next decade. And it’s got hawks and neoconservatives up in arms.

Earlier this year, in two pieces for The Nation, I wrote about a coalition of conservatives and tax hawks, including Grover Norquist, who’ve come out for cuts up to $1 trillion in defense, and about the prospect for serious cuts in defense spending across the board. In January, then–Secretary of Defense Gates had suggested trifling cuts of $78 billion, and in April President Obama upped the ante, calling for cuts of $400 billion. Now, it appears that Obama is backing cuts as much as $886 billion, and that might just be an opening bid. In any case, big cuts seem inevitable.

In a piece yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the generals and DOD officials are preparing for the worst:

The Pentagon is bracing for spending cuts far deeper than what it was expecting just a few weeks ago, including the possible elimination of an aircraft carrier group and other weapons programs.… Defense officials have been warning for months that the Pentagon must prepare for a new era of austerity after a long period of growth that has swelled military spending to its highest level, adjusted for inflation, since World War II.

And the Post noted that Senator Tom Coburn, a key member of the Senate’s Gang of Six, has openly called for $1 trillion in reduced military outlays.

Alarmed, but outgunned politically, the hawkish coalition called Defending Defense—made up of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and Bill Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative, all neocon-oriented—issued a report yesterday warning that cuts of that magnitude, or even smaller ones, could result in a “hollow force.” It said:

This week, Obama praised the latest in a series of plans to cut military spending by roughly $900 billion or more. He said the most recent plan that proposes cutting $886 billion from defense is “broadly consistent” with his own approach for getting the country’s finances under control. Although this plan, like the others, is light on details of how it would actually achieve trillions in overall spending cuts, it is clear that there is a willingness within the administration and among some members of Congress to slash defense well beyond the President’s earlier mark of $400 billion.

When it refers to “some members of Congress, the Defending Defense coalition doesn’t just mean the liberal Democrats, such as Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), but people such as Coburn and many Tea Party-backed ultraconservatives who appear ready to slash military spending, too.

The hawks’ worried conclusion:

While no comprehensive analysis for long-term readiness has been undertaken, the rough overall pattern is apparent: the future of American national security is being mortgaged to fight today’s wars and reduce the deficit by an insignificant amount. As a result, America’s armed forces, which have been stretched thin for nearly a decade, will likely be asked in the years ahead to do the same or more with even less if defense spending is cut once again.D

It’s okay to laugh at their contention that the military is being “stretched thin” after a decade of unbridled expansion and a doubling of military spending since 2000, not even counting Iraq and Afghanistan. But they’re right that cuts are coming. The only problem is that, even if the Pentagon budget is cut by 15 percent, it isn’t enough. Still, it would be a good start, and progressives ought to be able to force even greater reductions in coming years. As the Post article noted, after the cold war DOD spending fell by more than a third.

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