After years of growth in defense spending following the attacks of 9/11, and subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military’s budget is being cut back. In recent years the nation’s defense budget has been in the range of $600 billion, with additional funds for war spending. To put this in perspective, the United States spends three times more on defense than China, which is the world’s second largest defense spender. That’s according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Yet the question of whether and how to cut military spending remains hotly debated in Washington. Aging infrastructure, changing strategic needs, and rapidly rising personnel costs are all competing for the attention of budget planners at the Pentagon, in Congress, and at the White House.
Among the controversies is whether to lower or “drawdown” the number of U.S. troops after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military services have done this after every conflict since World War II. However, Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox says, in her view, there’s nothing else about this drawdown that’s similar to previous ones.
“It is the first time we’ve ever drawn down the force while we are still at war. Somebody deploys to Afghanistan and returns home and is told you’re out of a job. It’s a very challenging thing to do,” she says.
With new security concerns from Europe to Asia to the Middle East, another difference according to Fox is that no peace dividend is in the forecast. That’s what the military calls a peaceful period after a conflict. Generally that period allows for reprioritization of resources and time to rethink strategy. “There’s no hint of a peace dividend in the conversation,” Fox says, “everybody seems to recognize that this is a very unsettled, dangerous, unpredictable time.”
Which leads to the question, if the Pentagon doesn’t believe this is the right time for a drawdown, why is the Department of Defense in the middle of one? Fox says they’ve learned from past experience not to keep a force larger than their budget can support. “This is where the term hollow force comes from,” she says, “You have a sizeable force but it can’t do everything you expect it to be able to do because it’s too big for the budget you’ve been given. We are determined not to let that happen to us this time, but that means we have to get smaller. We have to get a lot smaller, and we have to start yesterday.”
In 2012 President Obama made $487 billion in defense cuts to be implemented over a decade. Then came the so-called sequester, or automatic spending cuts many in Washington argued would never happen. These across the board cuts were designed as a penalty that would ensure an overall budget deal for the federal government, as the alternative would simply be too terrible for parties on both sides of the political aisle to accept. However, when no such deal emerged, Acting Deputy Secretary Fox says sequester amounted to another half a trillion dollars in defense cuts to be spread over several of the same years as the first round of cutbacks.
“And that requires us to come up with a lot of frankly politically challenging things,” she says, “such as changing the compensation for our military, or closing bases, or cutting an acquisition or modernization program, or reducing the size of forces.”
Rapidly rising personnel costs are another financial challenge facing the military. These include expenses such as health care, pensions, and salaries, and have been climbing about 60% faster than inflation for a decade. That means it costs more every year just to keep the same number of people. The Pentagon says these costs now make up half of their budget.
Retired Marine Major General Arnold Punaro believes the military has little choice but to bring those costs under control. “The question is, what do we have a military for? Right now there are trade offs going on in the Department of Defense between what I’d say are highly trained and well-equipped riflemen and happy retirees, and we are siding with the happy retirees,” says Punaro. “I’m glad our retirees are happy, but they don’t deter aggression. They don’t deter terrorists. We need to get back to the core missions of the Department of Defense, which are warfighting.”
Modernization is another massive financial challenge the Pentagon faces. Mark Gunzinger is a senior fellow at The Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank in Washington. “It’s coming out of its longest war with a force that in some instances are the smallest it’s ever had, the Air Force in particular, and it’s the oldest Air Force, the fighters and bombers, that this nation has ever fielded,” says Gunzinger, “There’s a need to recapitalize aging capabilities, as well as modernize by buying the next generation of systems that will continue to give us a comparative edge over our future enemies.”
To do this the Pentagon, White House and Congress must work together. It requires some consensus on strategy, how much to spend, and on what to cut. Yet Gunzinger says Congress often ignores the Pentagon’s opinion on hot button issues that play into election politics, and that leads to gridlock.
He says, “If you can’t retire old force structure, if you can’t control the cost of your people programs, if you can’t get rid of excess infrastructure through a BRAC program, get rid of old bases you simply don’t need, what’s left? What’s your choice?”
Bill Hartung is a defense analyst at the Washington think tank Center for International Policy. He agrees politics are a constant problem in Pentagon spending. “The Administration wants to get rid of some ballistic missiles, but because of the caucus of senators from the states where they’re located they are not even going to destroy the silos,” he says. “They are going to take the missiles out, keep them in storage in case they ever want to use them again, and basically what was at stake was some jobs for security guards guarding those silos. So, really even down to a fairly small level you’ll see members go to bat for things that are not strategically relevant. It interferes with good planning and good strategy.”
Which raises another question. Do cutbacks in funding, troops, and infrastructure, combined with overall uncertainty surrounding the budget and decision making, have an effect on perceptions of the US military abroad? Mark Gunzinger at CSBA says he believes that’s true for his counterparts overseas. “They’re worried about continuing turbulence in the defense programs that are important to them.” He says, “They question whether or not we will have the resources to be able to rebalance the Asia Pacific region.”
Retired Marine Major General Punaro agrees. “If you create a vacuum or a perception that you’re not going to be engaged in parts of the world, our history shows that bad things happen,” he says. “So, instead of reforming how we spend the dollars internally, we’re cutting the war fighting side of the military. We’re cutting the troops. We’re cutting our war fighting readiness.”
For her part, Acting Deputy Secretary Fox says all allies and adversaries deal with their own politics. She says President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel keep international lines of communication open. “These trips, these travels, these senior level discussions that explain our system, what’s going on, how we handle it, can also be very reassuring to our allies,” she says, “and hopefully, continue to send the messages we need to send to our potential adversaries.”
As far as perception in Washington, many cheer the idea of cutting spending, but the across the board sequester spending caps remain unpopular throughout the government, according to Bill Hartung. “The administration wants to break the caps. Many in Congress want to break the caps. The defense industry also wants to break the caps. But, I think what they are up against are the larger budget politics,” he says. “There’s not going to be any give on taxes on the Republican side, no give on entitlements on the Democratic side.”
No matter how unpopular it becomes, the sequester only goes away for good if Congress agrees on an overall budget deal. Otherwise, those cuts take effect late next year, and that requires these same parties to work together to plan for them.