Pentagon Should Plan Alternative to Sequestration

Pentagon Should Plan Alternative to Sequestration

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is running around the world reassuring allies that the cuts in next year’s Pentagon budget won’t lessen America’s resolve. "Our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region of the world," Panetta told a NATO security conference in Munich last weekend.

The Obama administration, as part of the $487 billion in budget cuts included in the August debt ceiling deal (this is off previous projections in spending, the budget would still increase), has called for a 7,000-person reduction in the army presence in Europe. Yet the U.S. will still have over 70,000 troops at 28 bases when one counts Air Force and Navy personnel.

Who they are defending against 20 years after the end of the Cold War is a separate question, and not one answered by Panetta or the Obama administration’s rhetorical blasts against the next round of budget cuts – the so-called sequestration that is set for next January. “Sequestration would be a doubling of the cuts,” Panetta warned last month. “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.”

That’s not how it looks from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank that closely monitors the Pentagon budget wars. In a backgrounder released today appropriately titled “$trategy in A Year of Fiscal Uncertainty,” they showed that sequestration’s additional $500 billion in cuts over the next decade would only draw the Pentagon’s base budget down to 12 percent below current levels in inflation-adjusted dollars. If one throws in the expected drawdown in troops committed to Afghanistan and Iraq, the total reduction in military spending is about 30 percent.

The CSBA’s paper put that in historical perspective. After the end of the Cold War (post 1991), the military’s budget in inflation-adjusted dollars fell about 32 percent over the next decade. At the end of the Vietnam War, it fell by 25 percent over seven years before starting to rise again under President Ronald Reagan, who was determined to spend the Soviet Union’s “evil empire” into oblivion. At the end of the Korean War, it fell by over 50 percent as President Dwight D. Eisenhower shifted the military’s priorities from preparing for land wars to preparing for a nuclear confrontation.

“The failure to plan for future reductions is a major flaw in the (latest) Pentagon plan,” said Todd Harrison, who authored the CSBA paper. “If this decline is anything like what we’ve seen in previous defense cycles, there are more cuts to come.”

The major problem with the sequestration cuts, Harrison said, was that they were front loaded with a sharp decline in the early years and then a gradual leveling off over the decade. A better strategy, he suggested, would be to even out the cuts. A 2.2 percent reduction in inflation-adjusted dollars each year over the next decade would meet the budget reduction goals of the Budget Control Act.

A well-structured gradual build-down would also allow the Pentagon to shift its priorities to new threats such as cyber attacks on U.S. infrastructure, a rogue state like Iran building nuclear weapons, or an increasingly assertive China. “If nuclear weapons were the industrial age method of instant catastrophic destruction, then cyber weapons are the information age equivalent of instant catastrophic destruction,” said Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon planner and president of CSBA. He cited a computer attack on the nation’s electricity grid. “How do you counter that?”

Probably not with the current system for countering a nuclear weapons attack, where the U.S. still maintains airborne bombers, an underwater submarine fleet and intercontinental ballistic missile, all simultaneously and instantaneously capable of making the rubble bounce in Russia or China, the only two countries with the capacity to hit the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons. Do we really still need that, or the more than 600 military installations around the world, or the armed-to-the-teeth National Guard armories sprinkled across the U.S.?

And beyond those strategic questions, rhetoric about “draconian” budget cuts obscures an honest discussion about one of the deepest problems facing the military – the escalating commitments it has made to the nation’s retired military personnel. Since 2000, they have been offered guaranteed health coverage for life at a cost well below what most private citizens pay, a program that now costs $11 billion a year for the nation’s 2 million military retirees. The military has to set aside 33 cents for its retirement trust fund for every dollar it spends on active-duty personnel, whose costs also grew by 4.2 percent a year after inflation over the last decade.

“It’s like entitlements,” Krepinevich said. “If you can’t get a fix on the growth there, there’s no way to get control of the budget.”

Of course, with likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney calling for an 8 percent increase in military spending, and House Armed Services Committee chairman “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., vowing to fight any more cuts, the Pentagon planners could hunker down and hope there is a political solution to their problems. But CSBA’s Harrison speculated there was someone in the basement of the Pentagon planning for other possible outcomes.

And he’s probably right. After all, it was former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen who declared that huge deficits are a national security threat. And it is the Pentagon’s job to prepare for every possible national security threat – isn’t it?

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.