How a Leaner Military Could Save U.S. Defense
Policy + Politics

How a Leaner Military Could Save U.S. Defense


Last week, Aerospace Industries Association chief Marion Blakey warned the Senate Appropriation Defense Subcommittee that planned cuts to the defense budget would not only impact the broader economy, but hurt the defense industry's ability to deliver quality products. 

“If DOD continues to allocate its sequester reductions the way it has so far, the total reduction in modernization spending over the next five years could be as high as $147 billion,” Blakey said. “Ultimately, slashing procurement and R&D will threaten our industry’s ability to deliver these capabilities in the future.” 

Blakely is not the first one to sound this alarm. DOD brass has been warning of the same thing since sequestration began last spring. Even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that the changes would weaken parts of the military

For instance, Hagel said that a tiered training structure would leave two brigades unready for combat. In addition, some troops are expected to work with equipment that is not at the top of the line. 

Related Link: Hagel Picks a Fight with the Pentagon 

"We may have to accept the reality that not every unit will be at maximum readiness, and some kind of a tiered readiness system is perhaps inevitable,” Hagel said. “This carries the risk that the president would have fewer options to fulfill our national security objectives.” 

However, a number of think tank studies and defense policy experts outside of the Pentagon say that these warnings are overblown. The defense industry and the Pentagon have been growing at a record clip for the last decade, and are due for a drawdown.

According to Gordon Adams, a defense budget expert and professor at American University, DOD officials who are complaining about budget cuts are playing politics as the annual budget season kicks off. Any warnings about U.S. capabilities are overstated. 

“I’m really impatient with [complaints from DOD officials] because its politics without analysis,” he said. “A good analysis acknowledges the resources are going down. Then you plan the forces accordingly, you salute and you step out. The days of wine and roses are gone.” 

Related: Panic over Defense Cuts Just Political Theater 

The Pentagon’s budget had grown virtually unchecked in the decade after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. High-ranking DOD officials are used to a seemingly endless flow of cash. The chart below shows the dramatic increase in the Pentagon’s budget growth in the last decade.

Source: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments 

However, sequestration and a cyclical military drawdown are expected to remove some $600 million from DOD’s budget in the coming years. Adams says that many within the Pentagon have been in denial that the cuts would actually occur. 

“This is the five stages of grief. First, the military was in denial and the [Pentagon] was in denial. Then they got to anger, which is what we had last year. Both they and the industry were equally irresponsible, saying there would be 1 million jobs lost and we’d have second rate military,” Adams said. “Now we’re gotten some people to bargaining. In a few places in the building, they passed from the stage of depression and there are glimmerings of acceptance.” 

According to Kelley Sayler, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, cuts to DOD's budget will have some negative impact on U.S. forces. However, these cuts are not severe enough to seriously impact U.S. military strength. 

"It's unquestionable that the U.S. military will be negatively impacted by some of the decisions arising from sequestration, but it will still remain the best trained and, particularly, the best equipped force in the world for the foreseeable future," she said. 

Sayler added that the real drivers of cost are not training, but the cost of military benefits. Without pay cuts and health care premium increases, it would be nearly impossible to reduce long-term spending

"What I do find troublesome in terms of long-term planning, however, is that the cost growth within the military personnel and health care accounts has literally been exempted from the current debate over resources," she said. "The steadily increasing costs of military personnel and health care are quietly crowding out resources for readiness, end-strength, and modernization and forcing DOD to make cuts that would otherwise be unnecessary." 

Adams added that it remains to be seen if Hagel has the chops to push back against a military culture that is not used to hearing no. 

“The key questions is, can Hagel get the building to do what he wants it to do?” Adams asked. “That’s the political level we’re at right now.”