Defense Spending Still on the Chopping Block
Policy + Politics

Defense Spending Still on the Chopping Block


In the wake of the U.S. military’s triumphant killing of Osama bin Laden, calls to cut the defense budget as part overall federal deficit reduction will continue, but special forces like the Navy SEALS which carried out the mission will be in line for more funding, according to budget experts. Bin Laden ultimately cost the U.S. trillions of dollars on war, defense, and homeland security, adding substantially to America's deficit woes.

On the homeland security front, administration and congressional officials were quick to say that while the elimination of  bin Laden was a major turning point,  no one should assume  it will lead to a sudden  decline in terrorist activities or the need for  vigilance – both of which cost money.

“With the death of Osama Bin Laden, the ongoing disaster recovery efforts across the South, and the approaching tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we must remain vigilant and prioritize our limited resources to vital homeland security functions,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether the killing of the al Qaeda leader over the weekend will speed up or put the brakes on a withdrawal from Afghanistan. President Obama had set this summer as the date when he would begin pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., seemed to indicate that defense spending reductions and pulling out of Afghanistan will be on the same timetable as they were before bin Laden’s demise.
"We were looking at savings in the defense budget before and after [bin Laden's death],” he said. “Hopefully there will be a significant reduction (of forces in Afghanistan). That existed just as strongly now as before."
But Sen. John McCain, citing the historical resilience of terrorism, said Congress will hold fast on spending on defense and homeland security, despite Obama’s success in taking out bin Laden.

“I don’t think it changes anything  (in terms of defense spending)  because I think this has been an enormous victory and affirmation that you commit an act of terror against the United States, no matter how long it takes or no matter where we have to go, you’ll pay for it. But there are still all over the world young people who are motivated by radical Islamic extremism and they want to commit acts of violence against us and everything we believe in.”

American University foreign policy Prof. Gordon Adams suggested that the “budget cutters will say ‘mission accomplished, we’re done’ in Afghanistan. That’s not true. The Taliban is directing traffic in Afghanistan, not Al Qaeda.” He added that those who suggest that the killing of bin Laden means “we can stand down” on the war on terror “doesn’t understand terrorists. They have diversified and expanded.”

With influential Pentagon voices resisting any dramatic move, expectations had been growing that the pullout in Afghanistan would be more gradual than many of Obama’s fellow Democrats had hoped.  

Those who had been the champions of the president’s fall 2009 decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to combat the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists based across the border in Pakistan  insisted that the death of bin Laden should be seen as evidence the current strategy is working and an argument for continuing it.

Regardless of what the president decides, some experts say a push to scale back defense spending is an inevitable part of the government’s push to scale back spending and reduce the $1.5 trillion annual budget deficit.

“As big an event as bin Laden’s demise is, I don’t think it’s something that we can point to for major budgetary implications,” Peter Singer, Senior Fellow and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told The Fiscal Times.  “There were broader systemic issues in play before it, including the goal of reducing overall federal debt and deficit and the related goal of shrinking the Pentagon budget. These larger trends are still in play.”

However, Singer noted that the programs and operations in line for cuts are more in the area of procurement – such as the elimination of  a second engine for the  F-35 second engine, endorsed by the Pentagon  – and spending on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya.

Small anti-terror units such as the SEALS, which mounted the invasion of a compound in suburban Islamabad that took out bin Laden, are in a better budgetary position despite a report earlier this year that they would be targeted for cuts. Even before the bin Laden mission, commanders had expressed a desire to add several squadrons to Delta Force and the SEALS. “The programs being talked about for cuts tend to be the larger sized programs like major plane and ship programs,” Singer said.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., while continuing to insist that defense spending has to decrease, noted that the budget for Special Forces like the SEALS was going up even before the successful bin Laden. "They have already seen very significant increases," he said.

Special Forces budgets have garnered bi-partisan support on Capitol Hill. Sen. Lindsey Graham cracked that “The SEALS' budget is in pretty good shape.” At the same time, there were calls for balancing the needs for security with the need to reduce spending. Aderholt, the homeland security appropriations subcommittee chairman, noted in an email that the Department of Homeland Security is not immune from fiscal discipline.  But he stressed that priority should be given to “essential, frontline operations and critical programs that are demonstrating tangible results. By contrast, those programs and activities that are underperforming or not demonstrating measureable outcomes that further the homeland security mission will receive substantial reductions in their annual appropriations.”

The raid on Sunday brought to an end a decade-long hunt for the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks responsible for nearly 3,000 fiery deaths in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.  The attacks were a prelude to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq. On Monday, White House National Security Adviser John Brennan suggested in a news conference that now was no time for the U.S. to diminish its war on terrorism.  He called the bin Laden killing “decapitating the head of the snake known as al Qaeda.  And we’re hoping to bury the rest of al Qaeda along with bin Laden.”