The Perfect Storm About to Hit the Pentagon
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The Fiscal Times
July 3, 2014

It’s widely acknowledged that the Pentagon is going to feel a lot of pain as its budget shrinks by some $600 billion over the next decade. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), however, says it’s going to be far worse than military planners are acknowledging.

A new CSIS study, entitled Building the 2021 Affordable Military, paints a stark picture of DOD’s budget in the coming years. CSIS determined that the Pentagon’s base budget is projected to drop 21 percent in constant dollars from 2012 to 2021. CSIS also determined that the Pentagon’s purchasing power will be reduced by 15 percent during that same time frame.

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“The post-9/11 U.S. defense drawdown will be significantly deeper than is generally recognized,” the report says. “Because of the dual effect, or ‘double whammy,’ of the topline drawdown and the decreasing purchasing power of defense dollars, the military that the Department of Defense (DOD) can afford in 2021 will be smaller across the board, with sharp reductions in capacity in many areas.”

The report describes a perfect storm for DOD’s budget. Defense spending ballooned during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, so a drawdown is necessary. There will also be pressure from other entitlement programs, like Medicaid and Social Security, which will require additional funding in the coming years, particularly as the population ages.

At the same time, the American public has grown tired of war, and polls show that it is disinterested in global crises like the possible collapse of Iraq or Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The White House has repeatedly shown that it believes the use of force hinders American foreign policy as opposed to advancing it.

Complicating all of this is a stubborn refusal from within the Defense Department to change its spending habits. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was brought it last year to instill a new, more frugal culture, but he’s been undermined repeatedly by DOD brass.

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Perhaps the biggest offender in this regard is Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno. The shift from the large-war to small-war model impacts the Army the most. It’s set to lose tens of thousands of troops and legacy weapons programs like the A-1 Abrams tank.

This is why Odierno has been on a public campaign to warn lawmakers that the country will no longer be safe if their spending reductions go ahead as planned.

“I'm very concerned that at 420,000 [troops, down from the current 540,000], we cannot meet the ... defense strategic guidance,” Odierno told the Armed Services Committee in March. "I doubt that we could even execute one prolonged, multi-phase operation that is extended over a period of time."

The CSIS report says this kind of thinking and the failure to adequately prepare for the inevitable cuts is putting long-term military readiness at risk.

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“To cope with a drawdown of this magnitude, DOD needs to adopt a dramatically different approach to force planning— one that is grounded in the acceptance of budgetary caps,” the report said. If it does so, “DOD can minimize the impact of deep budgetary cuts and provide the military capabilities needed for the strategic realities of 2021 and beyond.”

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An editor-at-large for The Fiscal Times, David Francis has reported from all over the world on issues that range from defense to border security to transatlantic relations.