Hagel Wants to Shrink the Pentagon’s Budget—but Will His Cuts Be Enough?

Hagel Wants to Shrink the Pentagon’s Budget—but Will His Cuts Be Enough?

Hagel Wants to Shrink the Pentagon’s Budget—but Will His Cuts Be Enough?

The cuts ought to be seen as only a down payment on the level of defense spending reductions that are really needed.


For a long time now, it’s been obvious that the United States can’t sustain the bloated military budget that it supports now, and with the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan nearly done—at least from the standpoint of direct US involvement with ground forces—Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel yesterday outlined a preview of how the Obama administration will approach defense spending over the next several years.

But the cuts, though substantial, ought to be seen as only a down payment on the level of defense spending reductions that are needed. Last evening, on PBS Newshour, defense budget expert Gordon Adams of American University said:

I call this 50 percent towards reality.… We’re coming down right now in the defense budget at about a pace like other drawdowns that we have done after Korea, after Vietnam, at the end of the Cold War. We have always come down somewhere around 30 percent in constant dollars from the top of spending to the way we reached the bottom. And we’re at the shallow end of that right now.

According to the Defense Department’s release about Hagel’s proposals—which still have to get through Congress and its Iron Triangle, including hawkish members of the House and Senate, defense lobbyists and the military itself—the Defence Secretary’s plan includes “shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War II and eliminating an entire fleet of Air Force fighter planes.” Hagel and Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said that “the Pentagon budget that will shrink by more than $75 billion over the next two years.” Among the details: the size of the US Army will shrink from 520,000 to as low as 440,000 active duty soldiers and the Marine Corps will be cut from 190,000 to 182,000. And Hagel frankly linked the cuts to what America can afford:

An Army of this size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defense strategy. It is also larger than we can afford to modernize and keep ready.… This is the first time in 13 years we will be presenting a budget to Congress that is not a war footing budget.

The Obama-Hagel DOD budget ideas are already drawing intense fire from hawks and neoconservatives, including in Congress, but there’s plenty for progressives to complain about, too. Major weapons systems that might have been cut were sustained, the US special forces units are being increased substantially from already high levels and Hagel announced that the US Navy would maintain all eleven of its aircraft carriers.

Indeed, the military-industrial complex was so thrilled about continuing Pentagon support for big-budget, high-tech weapons systems that, according to The Wall Street Journal, stock prices for major defense contractors rose after the announcement, and the Journal said:

The Pentagon is proposing to reverse a four-year slide in its weapons-buying and research spending, lifting prospects for higher revenue at hard-hit military contractors including Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.

The $496 billion fiscal 2015 request outlined on Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would protect most of the Pentagon’s major programs in return for limited cuts, canceling an Army combat vehicle and halting purchases of the Navy’s littoral combat ship. The cuts would fund new projects including cyberwarfare capabilities, $1 billion for a more fuel-efficient jet engine, and plans for a new Navy surface ship.

And the Journal added:

Only three of the Pentagon’s largest contractors by revenue—BAE, Boeing and United Technologies—didn’t register 52-week highs as the Pentagon’s plans emerged.

Naturally, recalcitrant hawks are already denouncing the cuts in personnel and the related reductions in spending on military pay, pensions and healthcare benefits. For instance:

In the House, Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon faulted President Barack Obama on Monday for “trying to solve our financial problems on the back of the military.” The Pentagon has already given up more than its fair share of the federal budget, McKeon said, adding Washington’s real spending problem is with mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not the armed forces. “Unless we address that, we’re just going to keep digging ourselves further and further in the hole,” McKeon said.

Others, like Senator Kelly Ayotte (R.-NH), will weigh in on their favorite programs, such as the A-10 Warthog plane that will be canceled under Hagel’s proposal.

And Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who’s not noted as a defense expert, also lambasted Hagel:

Reducing the size of the Army to its lowest levels in 70 years does not accurately reflect the current security environment, in which the administration’s own officials have noted the threats facing our country are more diffuse than ever. Cutting key Air Force and naval capabilities just as we are trying to increase our presence in the Pacific does not make strategic sense. I am concerned that we are on a path to repeat the mistakes we’ve made during past attempts to cash in on expected peace dividends that never materialized.

But Rubio, if he wants to run for president, better get his talking points straight, because many of his Tea Party and libertarian-conservative backers—some of whom are outright isolationists—are more than willing to cut back on defense spending.

The cuts to military benefits, such as pensions and healthcare, ought to be applauded—but they’ll be exceedingly difficult to enact over the opposition of veterans groups and others. Those benefits are incredibly excessive as is, designed in part to attract enlistees to volunteer for the armed forces, and the military won’t give them up without a brutal fight to the finish. In the past, when presidents have tried to cut into these bloated benefits, they’ve been shot down every time—yet, from a budget point of view, that’s where the big bucks are.


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