The Pentagon is getting nervous about the implications of the slash-and-burn budget deal signed by President Obama this week. Because the deal sets up a mechanism to apportion $1.2 trillion in further cuts equally between defense and other programs—which means a $600 billion hit for the Department of Defense over the next ten years—the leaders of DOD are sending out signals that even that relatively modest amount would be, as the New York Times reports today, “cataclysmic.”
Of course, it would be no such thing. Even on top of the $400 billion in defense cuts that Obama called for in April, it’s easy to find a trillion dollars in the Pentagon’s pockets over the next decade or so. During that time, military spending is scheduled to top $6 trillion, even not counting the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I reported in The Nation, there have been several detailed proposals, from liberals and conservatives alike, to cut at least $1 trillion from defense by 2020, amounting to a modest 15 percent reduction. (In the 1990s, after the cold war, defense spending fell by more than one-third, before rising again in 1999 and skyrocketing after 9/11.)
Secretary of Defense Panetta, who’s known as a flinty-eyed budget cutter, is acting like the military’s defender-in-chief in his new post, even though he (and his new deputy secretary, Ashton Carter, also a budget hawk) undoubtedly realize that the Pentagon is facing some serious slashing and burning. In a letter to DOD employees posted yesterday, Panetta suggested that the touted $600 billion in cuts is only meant as a political bogeyman to scare Congressional deal-makers into making other cuts. “This potential deep cut in defense spending is not meant as policy,” he wrote. “Rather it is designed to be unpalatable to spur responsible, balanced deficit reduction and avoid misguided cuts to our security.” Even so, when the new Congressional hit team of twelve super-members starts looking to save money, it’s going to be next to impossible to avoid major cuts at DOD.
Still, it ain’t gonna be easy. Bill Hartung, a noted defense expert writing in the Huffington Post, says: “The good news is that the Pentagon budget is finally on the table in deficit reduction talks. But it will take a lot more hard work to ensure that it is truly reduced as part of ongoing negotiations over the size and shape of the federal budget.” Needless to say, the so-called Iron Triangle that bolsters the DOD budget—the armed services committees in Congress, the defense contractors and the military itself—will join forces to fiercely resist serious cuts. Already, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative McKeon and the chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, Representative Bill Young, both Republicans, have vowed to fight reductions. And a coalition of thinktanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and Bill Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative have established a group called Defending Defense, and the lobbyists for the industry in Washington are mobilizing to fight back, led (as the Washington Post reports) by Tony Podesta, the brother of the head of the Center for American Progress, whose firm represents major defense contractors.