Foreign and Defense Policy

Washington’s paradoxical position on defense cuts

Secretary of Defense (Flickr) (CC-BY-2.0)

Secretary of Defense (Flickr) (CC-BY-2.0)

This morning at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a small group that the world is the most uncertain and combustible he’s seen in the post-World War II era.

Not only are there more threats, but the United States lacks the predictability available in the Cold War.

Not only is the world more uncertain than any time in recent memory, but this is a defense drawdown taking place while a significant amount of US forces are still engaged in conflict.

America is also shrinking the military with a defense budget that looks little like those of the past five drawdowns. In many ways, this drawdown is unlike the others, and it is being done within a defense budget that is similarly unique.

Since this is not your grandfather’s defense budget, the same stalling tactics, old political battle lines, and tired intransigence to change and reform must be beaten back.

While there are often many solid individual reasons to oppose change in the defense budget, taken collectively, Congress is adding harm to national security above and beyond sequestration’s consequences.

The constantly-falling defense budget topline is just the first problem confronting Hagel. The next is that he is being told, in effect, to cut without cutting.

Washington’s great paradox is that many politicians see little problem cutting the defense topline but oppose all the individual defense cuts once those macro decisions become micro consequences.

When Congress says the Army and Air Force cannot reduce National Guard programs or platforms under a fixed budget, for example, they force the money to come from another military priority. When fleets of aircraft or ships cannot be retired earlier than planned due to money restraints, again the funding has to come out of hide and from within the defense budget.

By saying no to the many hard choices in sequestration-level defense budgets, Congress is effectively fencing off between one-half and two-thirds of the defense budget to absorb the reductions they helped impose.

Finally, there is the reduced buying power of each individual defense dollar in today’s budget, as outlined by CSIS’ Clark Murdock.

All in, the convergence of these three trends compounds the Pentagon’s funding challenge. Defense leaders must now look beyond bridge-building on Capitol Hill.

While it is crucially important to continue educating members on the value of sustained defense investment, the Secretary of Defense should unilaterally move forward through executive action to advance the solutions that are required to meet the defense budgets the White House and Congress have approved.

It is smart for the Pentagon to continue seeking a partner in Congress over the long-term, but the demands of the moment require direct action. As the “no’s” continue to pile up on Capitol Hill, Secretary Hagel should use the relief valves available to him in law to force change now.

Maybe, just maybe, that will mobilize a wider bloc in Congress to start thinking more strategically about the outputs of defense and what the budget actually buys America instead of throwing more sand in the gears of change.

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7 thoughts on “Washington’s paradoxical position on defense cuts

  1. The world has never been risk-free, but there seems to be no rising omperialist powers now. Terrorism is more annoying than a threst to our independence or prosperity.
    Egads, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a threat. Today the enemy is some moronic Islamic hillbillies minus tanks, planes, ships, let alone missiles, satellites, etc.
    The Pentagon and related parties will always fearmonger—I expect experts to see solutions to a better defense for much less money…

    • Yet those ‘hillbillies’ inflicted the biggest loss of life in the CONUS since the Civil War.

      The ‘cut defense’ or the ‘we spend to much’ crowd has no historical persepctive.

      Guess what these cuts WILL NOT cause further global destabalization or other geostrategic calamities TOMORROW but ten years from now just you watch what the world is like if the US continues its’ global retreat.

      • Since 9/11, more than 180,000 Americans have been murdered—by drunk drivers.
        So terrorists are a minute threat, in comparison.
        As for geo-stability and the rest…sheesh did we learn nothing from the Afghanie, Iraq and Vietnam follies?
        BTW, I am a libbie—libertarian that is.
        The American right’s obsession with military outlays is federal giganticus at its worst.

  2. This nation could easily afford 5% of GDP on defense or around $850 billion dollars.

    The left is always saying how great the 50′s were with high unionization and a strong middle class well we also spent almost half the federal budget on defense and over 8% of GDP HOW COME they never mention this?

    • Devoting 5 percent of GDP by rote to any function financed by taxes levied on productive citizens is bad management. We should devote the minimum necessary.

      If China should arm up and become bellicose, we might have to allocate more than 5 percent to the tax-financed military. It would be a drain on our resources, and parasitic on our economy, but we would have to do it.

      Or, in a world in which only an oddball state or two even annoys us, we could spend less than 5 percent of GDP on defense, and flush the money back into the private sector–the taxpayers, whose money it is, btw.

      Somehow, I do not fear an attack by the Afghanistan Armada.

  3. Ms. Eaglan,

    What have been the total cuts inflicted on the DOD since Obama took office? I remember;

    1) $178 billion
    2) a further $400 billion
    3) Sequestration
    4) now this

    Question back in 2007-08 what was the DOD budget to be in 2018? What is it going to be now?

    • The question: How can we reduce the federal burden on income tax payers to the minimum amount?

      Can we devise a defense sector that is viable for half the money?

      Has anyone even studied this? Why not?

      Have we benefitted from a military that was used by civilian leadership to occupy Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan?

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