(AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
Should the enormous US military budget—which is more than double the combined levels of military spending by China, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Germany—be cut? This question is finally on the table, thanks to the winding down of combat activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and to Washington’s obsession with tamping down the federal deficits that have arisen from the Great Recession. Many who would like to protect the military from the budget knife raise economic arguments to make their case: Won’t cutting military spending be bad for jobs, just when we need to maintain focus on reducing unemployment? Won’t it threaten the country’s long-term technological capabilities?
The matter assumed increased urgency in November after the Congressional supercommittee failed to agree on a deficit-reduction plan. This failure set in motion an agenda for automatic cuts—or “sequestration” of funds—from military and nonmilitary budgets beginning in January 2013. According to the sequestration scenario, absent the adoption of a large-scale deficit-cutting plan, military and nonmilitary spending would face $55 billion per year in automatic cuts over a decade, relative to previously established spending levels. If Congress and the White House devise a way to exempt the Pentagon from the automatic cuts—as seems increasingly likely—the cuts will instead be taken from healthcare, education, social spending, infrastructure and the environment.
Of course, framing the deficit issue in terms of military versus social spending cuts ignores other options, such as raising taxes on the wealthy. It also erroneously assumes that reducing the federal deficit is necessary now, before the economy has settled onto a sustainable recovery path out of the recession. Even more fundamental, today’s debate largely skirts the question of what the military budget needs to be after Iraq and Afghanistan, and fails to grapple honestly with the impact that major military spending reductions would have on the economy, especially in terms of job opportunities and technology.
Members of today’s military-industrial complex—the constellation of forces, including Democratic and Republican politicians, weapons manufacturers, lobbyists and the Pentagon leadership, whose influence President Eisenhower warned against in 1961—claim that significant reductions in the military budget would decimate US defenses and inflict major damage to the economy. In fact, these claims are demonstrably false.
The Proposed Spending Cuts Are Modest
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has stated that the planned cuts in the military budget would result, over a decade, in “the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history.” Panetta has said repeatedly that the cuts would amount to nearly $1 trillion. That does indeed sound like a lot, given that the annual level of total military spending is about $700 billion.
But what Panetta and others call $1 trillion in cuts is actually an annual $100 billion reduction added up over ten years to produce the huge-sounding $1 trillion figure. In reality, moving from a roughly $700 billion to $600 billion annual budget is hardly extreme, especially when we consider that this includes cuts tied to ending the US combat role in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2012 budget for these two wars alone is $115 billion, and the planned budget for 2013 is $88 billion, even after combat is over. The Pentagon has also included for 2014 onward a baseline contingency budget of $44 billion annually for any carryover fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, or new wars elsewhere. Thus, by the Pentagon’s own estimate, winding down Iraq and Afghanistan will end up saving $44 billion a year after 2013. In the unlikely event that the budgetary sequestration cuts are carried out, an additional $55 billion per year would be cut. That’s how we cut our way from a $700 billion to $600 billion annual military budget.