New Strategy, Old Pentagon Budget
February 8, 2012
Editorial / The New York Times
The $259 billion in budget cuts over the next five years announced by the Pentagon may sound like a lot. But they are mainly a scaling back of previously projected spending. Here are some additional cuts that make sense: shrink the F-35 program and cut the nuclear weapons budget.
NEW YORK (January 29, 2012) -- The $259 billion in budget cuts over the next five years announced by the Pentagon may sound like a lot. But they are mainly a scaling back of previously projected spending -- the delights of the Washington budget games.
This year, Pentagon spending will total $531 billion. In 2017, it will rise to $567 billion. Factoring in inflation, that amounts to only a minuscule 1.6 percent real cut. (Both numbers exclude war spending -- $115 billion this year.)
After a decade of unrestrained Pentagon spending increases, President Obama deserves credit for putting on the brakes. The cuts are a credible down payment on his pledge to reduce projected defense spending by $487 billion in the next decade. They are not going to be enough. In the likely absence of a bipartisan budget pact, a further automatic across-the-board 10-year cut of nearly $500 billion is to take effect starting next January.
Even if a last-minute deal heads that off, the country needs to find more savings. And there is still plenty of room to cut deeper without jeopardizing national security.
Early in January, President Obama outlined a new, more pragmatic defense strategy. Republicans predictably claimed he was hollowing out the force -- but a smarter, more restrained use of force is just what the country needs to secure its vital interests.
Much of the savings will come from cutting the size of the Army and Marine Corps by almost 13 percent and stretching out purchases of planes and ships. At the same time, the military will buy more unpiloted drones, add special operations units, equip submarines to carry more cruise missiles and expand its cyberwarfare capacities.
That makes sense in a world where terrorism and unconventional attacks are a primary threat. Any plan to downsize ground forces must be matched by a credible plan to quickly build them up, if necessary.
The Pentagon also proposes a new round of domestic base closings, a less generous formula for military pay raises after 2015 and higher health insurance premiums for military retirees (families of working-age retirees now pay $500 annually), all of which we strongly support.
Unfortunately, that new thinking has been dragged down by some old-style budgetary inertia. Mr. Obama needs to push the Pentagon to do better. Here are some additional cuts that make sense:
SHRINK THE F-35 PROGRAM
The total order of stealth fighters should be reduced to 1,000, from 2,440, saving more than $150 billion. The F-35 was designed as a low-cost, supercapable aircraft. It has become the costliest Pentagon procurement project ever and its performance has been disappointing. The Air Force, Navy and Marines need to cut their losses. Most of the savings would not come until the 2020s. Over $20 billion could be saved this decade by canceling the troubled Marine Corps variant.
CUT THE NUCLEAR BUDGET
Mr. Obama has declared his commitment to arms control, but there is no reflection of that in the budget plan. He needs to back it up with significant cuts in the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, ballistic missile submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican, offers a sensible plan to do that, and estimates that it could save $79 billion over the next decade.
GO TO 10 AIRCRAFT CARRIER GROUPS
The Pentagon could save $4 billion to $8 billion over a decade by revisiting the president’s unwise decision not to eliminate one of the 11 aircraft carriers with associated ships and aircraft. Ten would provide more than enough surge capacity to support naval air operations anywhere in the world.
We know that it is politically easier to continue programs that outlive their usefulness or outrun their cost estimates -- especially when Republican politicians are so eager to promise the Pentagon a blank check. And especially when the defense industry and its lobbyists are spreading so much cash around on Capitol Hill. But the country cannot afford to continue on this way. And there is no strategic argument for doing so. The era of hard choices at the Pentagon has barely begun.