Offering a military budget designed to head off charges that he’s weak on defense, President Obama on Thursday unveiled a Pentagon spending plan that fails to cut any major procurement programs and calls for spending $36 billion more on the military in 2017 than it will spend this year.
Though billed as a cumulative cut of $259 billion over the next five years, that reduction is based on previous budget proposals that presumed the military spending would continue to grow as fast as it has over the past decade, when spending more than doubled. Total military spending, including $115 billion for the war in Afghanistan and recently-ended conflict in Iraq, totaled $646 billion this year, up from $310 billion in 2001.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who unveiled the broad outlines of the budget plan at a Pentagon press conference, repeated a theme that administration officials have sounded since last August’s debt ceiling deal, which imposed minor cuts in military spending. The deal poses the threat that there will be a significant 10-year reduction of $500 billion in military spending through sequestration if Congress doesn’t come up with alternatives.
“Sequestration would be a doubling of the cuts,” Panetta said. “That would require they take place through a meat axe approach that would hollow out the force and do severe damage to our national defense for generations.”
Liberal critics immediately scoffed at such assertions and blasted the limited cuts in Obama’s post-Iraq spending plan, which they point out would be the smallest post-war build-down of modern times. Military spending declined around 30 percent in inflation-adjusted terms after World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the fall of the Soviet Union, while the current administration plan calls for approximately an 8 percent reduction in inflation-adjusted dollars. The leading contenders for the Republican nomination, except libertarian Ron Paul, are calling for sharp increases in military spending.
The administration’s plan “is much ado about nothing,” charged Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon planner who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, which is usually closely aligned with the administration. “They could take a trillion dollars out of the military budget over the next decade without affecting national security.” Under the current plan, the military will spend nearly $6 trillion over the next decade.
Gordon Adams, a Defense Department official during the Clinton administration and now a professor of political science at American University, warned the nation’s deficit reduction needs will force the Pentagon to come up with much steeper cuts. Though the administration plan trims $6 billion off core Pentagon programs next year, it begins growing again in 2014.
The proposal “leaves Pentagon planners with the unrealistic expectation that . . . budget growth will return,” he said. “That expectation will lead to unrealistic planning for the future: the out-years of this budget are completely at risk.”
Panetta said the plan is designed to leave the military with a smaller, more agile and more technologically advanced force, capable of rapid deployment anywhere in the world. It also includes $88 billion for Afghanistan operations next year, down just $27 billion from this year.
Because personnel will continue to get cost-of-living increases under the plan, the active-duty roster in the army will shrink to 490,000 over the next five years from its current 562,000-person force, while the Marines will see their ranks decline by 20,000 to 182,000. Panetta said the administration would ask Congress to restart the base-closing commission process to determine which facilities should be closed to accommodate the slightly smaller force.
Military contractors like Lockheed-Martin, Boeing and General Dynamics have little to fear from the Obama administration plan. While procurement under a number of the programs will be delayed to accommodate the new budget realities, virtually every planned program remains intact. There are even a few new programs on the drawing boards.
For instance, all the variations of the Joint Strike Fighter, which is scheduled to replace every fighter jet available to the Air Force, Navy and Marines over the next 25 years, are still on track. So is replacement of the entire nuclear submarine fleet, an expanded drone aircraft fleet and maintenance of 11 aircraft carrier groups.
The administration also plans to develop a next generation strategic bomber and next-generation aerial refueling tanker, which, along with the existing nuclear submarine fleet and the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile system, provides the U.S. with the so-called “triad” of nuclear weapons delivery capabilities. The triple threat was seen as necessary to deter a first strike by either Russia or China during the Cold War. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Obama administration is signaling its intention to maintain the triad well into the future.
Meanwhile, Panetta said the administration has opened talks with the Philippines and Australia about increasing the U.S. presence in the South China Sea and its forward presence throughout the Asia-Pacific region. That has become a high priority for military planners to counter what they perceive as the growing military threat from China.
The budget does project some streamlining of the force. The Air Force will retire some aging air transports and about 10 percent of its 60 air force tactical air squadrons. “We will maintain a very healthy airlift capability,” Panetta vowed. “None that will impact our ability to dominate the skies.”
The Pentagon also will look for ways to cut about $60 billion from its administrative and contracting budget, even as it plans to step up its investment in fighting new threats like cyber-warfare. “We have to be able to leap ahead technologically in order to defense against those kind of adversaries,” Panetta said.
While active military personnel and their families will be spared from any cuts, veterans will be expected to pick up a larger share of their health care expenses if they’re on the military’s health care plan, which now costs the Defense Department nearly $50 billion a year. “We are recommending increases in health care fees, co-pays and deductibles for retirees that will be phased in over five years,” Panetta said. “But even after these increases, the cost borne by retirees will be below cost-sharing levels in private sector plans, as they should be.”
Pentagon officials earlier this week briefed appropriators on Capitol Hill, where the Obama administration’s military budget is expected to get a warm reception since it puts off any serious discussion about the future direction of military affairs until after the election. “Defense budgets will come down deeper than the Secretary thinks . . . if the nation’s debt is to stabilize at 60 percent of GDP,” American University’s Adams warned. “To find those cuts, everything, including defense, will still be on the table, even after this budget.”