How to Cut the Growth of Obama's $5.6 Trillion War Budget
January 10, 2012
John Arquilla / San Francisco Chronicle
The Obama administration plan to cut military spending by $487 billion over the next 10 years. Sounds like less, right? It's not. This is an 8 percent "reduction" in defense spending, but which uses as its baseline annual future outlays that were planned to amount to $5.6 trillion by 2021. The baseline is roughly double the rate of defense expenditures in the decade from 1991 to 2001.
Deeper Defense Cuts Would Result in Better Choices
John Arquilla / San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO (January 8, 2012) -- Sometimes less is truly more. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta proved this Thursday [January 5] when he outlined the Obama administration plan to cut military spending by $487 billion over the next 10 years. Sounds like less, right? It's not.
This is an 8 percent "reduction" in defense spending, but which uses as its baseline annual future outlays that were planned to amount to $5.6 trillion by 2021. The baseline is roughly double the rate of defense expenditures in the decade from 1991 to 2001.
So what we're really looking at is just a small reduction in a defense budget that has been vastly inflated since 9/11. Under this plan, we'll still be spending $5.2 trillion on the military over the next decade, a rate of expenditure not seen, in real dollar terms, since World War II.
President Obama, unlike any president before him, was briefly in the Pentagon briefing room Thursday to help roll out the new plan. He put the matter very succinctly: "The defense budget will continue to grow." There it was, right up front. The president acknowledged the plan will not make real cuts, just slow the growth rate of defense spending.
Never before in our history have defense spending levels remained so high as wars wind down. This budgetary largesse is even more unseemly when one considers that al Qaeda, our principal enemy, could line up every fighter it has in the world and still not be able to fill out a single, traditionally configured brigade (2,500 to 3,500 troops). The "threat" simply cannot justify the expense.
Panetta gave this justification for continuing to sustain these huge military outlays over the next decade: The United States must be ever ready to fight "any and all" comers. The strategic review of security interests that Panetta oversaw also makes clear that the United States will focus closely on being able to wage "one major war" - a conflict likely to be manpower intensive and very costly - instead of the long-held goal of being able to wage two major wars simultaneously.
Panetta ducked the point that the Pentagon's two-wars doctrine has been an agreed-upon fiction for many years. We have not demonstrated a capacity to conduct large-scale operations on multiple fronts since the Vietnam era, when our half-million troops in Southeast Asia were complemented by half a million more stationed in Europe, ready to fight the Red Army. Indeed, even a smaller war, like the invasion and occupation of Iraq in the past decade, undermined our ability to conduct the even smaller conflict in Afghanistan.
So the secretary found himself both implicitly admitting our limitations and arguing that we have to be ready to fight that big war in an old-style way - with the "big battalions" running into the hundreds of thousands of troops, thousands of attack aircraft and hundreds of major naval vessels.
Instead of engineering a triumph of politics over military strategy, as the Obama administration is doing with this plan, there is a better way to think about making deep, steady reductions in defense spending without imperiling the national security.
Let us accept Panetta's 8 percent reduction figure, but apply it - and keep applying it yearly for 10 years to declining principal amounts - using the currently agreed-upon annual defense budget of about $660 billion. A decade from now, annual defense spending would fall to $286.7 billion. This is close to the spending level at the time of the attacks on the United States in 2001.
The total spending reductions over the next 10 years would be $1.33 trillion, roughly triple the $487 billion in savings that Panetta announced. And this "8 percent solution" would save about $300 billion more than the total cuts called for by the congressional supercommittee that Panetta said he strongly opposed.
Savings would be even greater if the annual reduction rate were raised just slightly, to say 10 percent. Under this scenario, defense spending would drop in 10 years to $230 billion, instead of continuing to linger in the $600 billion range as the Obama plan currently envisions. The gradual nature of the "declining balance" cuts I have suggested would ensure that the national security remained sound, and the huge savings would serve as a de facto fiscal stimulus, renewed every year, revitalizing our battered economy. Yet Panetta opposes anything of this sort. The president, too, it seems.
Panetta has previously said that cuts beyond those he is proposed Thursday would lead to "doomsday." I know and respect Panetta, but his "doomsday" talk is both excessive and inaccurate.
Even at the reduction levels I am recommending, the republic will remain quite safe. We have the best nuclear arsenal in the world, a navy whose mastery, in historical terms, is close to unmatched, and absolute air superiority over every other country in the world.
This will not change if we cut 8 percent of the fat out of a budget bloated with what Obama noted in his introductory remarks were unnecessary "legacy systems" from the Cold War era.
To those who say that an al Qaeda armed with a nuclear weapon would pose the ultimate threat, I can only respond that this terrible problem is not going to be solved by adding tanks, advanced jets or aircraft carriers. They are largely irrelevant to dealing with the threat of terrorism with weapons of mass destruction.
To counter the scourge of nuclear terror, the United States needs to give far more attention to arms control and invest in law enforcement, intelligence and special operations forces - the last of which subsist on only about 3.5 percent of the Pentagon budget, even after 10 years of leading the fight against our nation's enemies.
It is not how much we spend that matters but how we invest. Deeper defense budget cuts would compel the Pentagon to make some long overdue hard choices about its strategic priorities.
If only we would be willing to make less really mean less, then we could improve the overall quality of our forces immeasurably and enjoy far more, and more lasting, security.
Defense spending options
Secretary Leon Panetta's announced "reduction" in defense spending trims from a bloated budget. Here are suggestions for spending cuts:
Original Pentagon plan:
$5.6 trillion projected total defense spending 2012-2021
8% declining balance option:
10% declining balance option:
John Arquilla is professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are his own. Send your feedback to us through our online form at sfgate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1
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