It’s too much to expect that, before the 2012 election, there will big cuts to the Department of Defense. The Pentagon’s bloated budget, which has roughly doubled since the late 1990s, not counting the vast sums spent on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, is still a sacred, well, hippopotamus.

But, on the other hand, as I reported in The Nation early last year (“Taking Aim at the Pentagon Budget”), the United States is an empire in decline, and it can no longer afford a military budget equal to the rest of the world combined. As that piece showed, even some traditional conservatives and Tea Party rebels have begun to side with liberal Democrats such as Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) to propose much larger cuts in defense spending than either the Obama administration or Congress as a whole is likely to consider this year.

This week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will announce his plans for military spending going forward to 2020 or so. It won’t be dramatic, but think of it as an opening bid. What the United States spends on defense is heading south, and will continue to do so for a decade or more. Anti-military organizers, peace groups and anyone concerned about reorienting our country’s priorities away from militarism and war ought to be girding for a decade-long battle to maximize cuts. In the 1990s, at the end of the cold war, Pentagon spending fell by about one-third. Of the roughly $6 trillion that the United States is currently projected to spend over the next ten years on war, the Obama administration has already conceded that about $450 billion can be eliminated, and the absurdly named supercommittee’s failure to agree on spending last year supposedly imposes another $500 billion in defense cuts, for a total of nearly a trillion bucks, or one-sixth of future spending. Of course, that’s not enough, though it’s outraged hawks, including some Republican candidates for president, the so-called Iron Triangle in Congress, and a right-wing coalition called Defending Defense, made up of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and Bill Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative.

But the door is open for more, which is why Defending Defense verges on hysterical in its frequent denunciations of anyone who proposes even slight reductions.

As the New York Times notes today, in its lead story:

In a shift of doctrine driven by fiscal reality and a deal last summer that kept the United States from defaulting on its debts, Mr. Panetta is expected to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military—and in so doing make it clear that the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at once.

Despite the emphasis on “carefully,” expect Republicans to pounce on Panetta’s modest, and relatively hawkish, reductions.

Fact is, to reduce spending, major defense systems will have to end, the size of the US Army and Marines will have to be dramatically reduced, enormous cuts will have to be made on salaries, pensions and healthcare benefits for troops and military retirees, and America’s vast worldwide system of bases oversea must be slashed. In slow-motion recognition of that fact, the Defense Department is already planning to shrink the army and Marines, and to shift planning away from land wars and counterinsurgency wars to power-projection via the air force and navy. Some of that, naturally, will be designed to build up US forces in the Pacific to counter China, a fool’s errand if there ever was one—especially since China’s military is unable to do much outside its borders and lacks anything close to American technology. Far better to find a peaceful accommodation with China that recognizes Beijing’s legitimate national security interests and that doesn’t seek to sustain American hegemony in the Far East.

Proposals, noted in the Times, to slice US ground forces by 35 percent (saving $385 billion over ten years), to cut healthcare and retirement benefits (another $281 billion), cancel weapons systems like the F-35 and reduce the size of the navy flotilla ($103 billion) and to cut one-third of the US troop presence in Europe and Asia ($70 billion) are making their way into the discussion. But much more is needed.

Don’t expect Mitt Romney to join in. As Walter Pincus reminds us today in the Washington Post, in “Defense Secretary Panetta faces tough choices on national security in 2012,” Romney is playing to the far right in his campaign:

Speaking on Oct. 6, Romney said that he wanted Pentagon core spending to rise to 4 percent of gross domestic product and that he would increase active-duty personnel by about 100,000. In a speech the next day at the Citadel, he said he would “reverse the hollowing of our Navy and…increase the shipbuilding rate from nine per year to 15.” He also repeated a pledge that has Republican roots going back to the Nixon administration: “I will begin reversing Obama-era cuts to national missile defense and prioritize the full deployment of a multilayered national ballistic missile defense system.”

During the Nov. 22 Republican presidential debate, Romney said the Obama administration, in response to the Budget Control Act, halted production of the F-22 stealth fighter, delayed aircraft carriers and said new long-range Air Force bombers would not be built. These steps and others, Romney said, are “cutting the capacity of America to defend itself.”

That’s nonsense, of course. But most left-liberal analysts of defense don’t expect anything serious to happen until 2013. That’s when the battle will be joined, and this time a combination of fiscal reality and the American public’s declining appetite for war will be added to the mix.