Back to the (Uncertain) Future

Friday, April 6, 2012
Robert Gates cartoon
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Taylor Jones

President Obama has not taken our country’s precarious debt situation seriously. When forced by Congress to revise his budget earlier this year, Defense was the only department targeted for cuts. Last summer’s Budget Control Act legislated further reductions for this year’s budget and portends even more significant cuts in the out years of the coming decade. Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently unveiled a sensible set of choices for the coming year, but unfortunately failed to account for hundreds of billions of dollars that still must be found under the terms of last summer’s legislation. Unless they provide a better blueprint for spending, across-the-board cuts will come into effect in January 2013. And, as Panetta himself has said, not just the budget choices but the entire Pentagon strategy would collapse with any further cuts.

In addition to producing a budget willfully ignorant of further cuts, the White House has avoided any serious discussion of the hazards of cutting spending this deeply. The president is trying to have it both ways, cutting defense while pretending there is no risk associated with the cuts. At his Pentagon press conference in January, Obama said that “yes, our military will be leaner, but the world must know—the United States is going to maintain our military superiority.” But neither he nor Panetta has produced a plan that gives credence to the claim.

Cutting the size of our forces will increase the likelihood of challenges by adversaries, reduce our ability to train with allies and reassure them with our presence, and increase the strain on our own military. It would have to be done with great care. But Panetta’s goal of reaping most of the cuts from reducing the size of U.S. military forces is not a bad choice, given that Iraq deployments have ended and NATO forces are to leave Afghanistan by the end of next year. Manpower represents the quickest return of cash, and our military has demonstrated in the past decade that it can recruit, train, and equip high-quality soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to “surge” our ranks when the demands of two wars require more forces. Still, I remain skeptical that enough could be cut from manpower to bring the budget into alignment with Congress’s wishes.

The president tries to have it both ways: cut defense, but pretend there’s no risk from the cuts.

Partly that’s because of another crucial guns-or-butter issue Panetta has failed to take up, at least so far. As Arnold Punaro from the Defense Business Board puts it, unless major changes are made to medical and retirement programs, “If we allow the current trend to continue, we’re going to turn the Department of Defense into a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist.” The growth of medical and retirement programs that is the principal driver of our federal debt is crowding out other spending within the defense budget. Secretary Panetta has evidently made some cuts, but the budget figures are not yet available.

Congress should seriously question Panetta’s calculations about savings to be gained from personnel and “cutting waste,” an optimistic goal that ostensibly returns $60 billion to Defense Department coffers. (If the Pentagon hasn’t already eliminated waste during the $400 billion in cuts undertaken by former secretary Robert Gates, it deserves much more draconian cutbacks than currently envisioned.)

Personnel costs constitute a major spending category: some 30 percent of the defense budget. This is to be expected, as we have the world’s finest military largely because we have the world’s most adaptable personnel, who deserve to be well compensated. Moreover, the Pentagon needs to be able to attract innovative people and keep them. Thus military pay has climbed significantly during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Naturally any cuts in pay or benefits, even if modest, would be bruisingly difficult to enact. The White House and the Pentagon would have to forge a political coalition that protects lawmakers from pressure by retirees and veteran groups. Yet how would a president who advocates caregiver leave for deploying service members stake out this territory in an election year?

Robert Gates cartoon

In the broadest terms, the Panetta approach reverses the focus his predecessor brought to the near-term demands of wars currently being fought. Panetta’s approach instead accepts greater risk in the near term to protect procurement of systems he considers crucial for the long term, those that would preserve a technological edge over China. In emphasizing pared-down but more “agile” forces, Panetta’s approach is reminiscent of the pre-9/11 strategy led by former secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Gates’s strategy leaned heavily on the need to fill and equip the current force for winning two simultaneous wars by counterinsurgency, the most personnel-intensive approach. Other approaches—“stand-off” strikes, a greater reliance on allies, adopting a marginal contribution formula, decapitation attacks to disable command-and-control structures—may be cheaper, but they carry a greater risk of failure to achieve stable political objectives and have a number of collateral problems. Gates’s strategy is a costlier way to win wars than relying on long-range strikes and a shift to more special-operations forces and drones—Panetta’s approach—but it is also the strongest of our current options.

If the Pentagon hasn’t already eliminated waste during the $400 billion in Gates cuts, how much more could there be?

The excellence of the U.S. military has driven potential enemies to asymmetrical strategies, which is the right kind of problem for a military to have—better than the alternative, an enemy that believes it can achieve its aims by destroying our military. I doubt that Congress would insist on arbitrarily cutting defense spending in ways that imperil our security, but lawmakers would do well to explicitly grant Secretary Panetta the widest possible freedom of choice for how to implement deep cuts.

At the same time, the president should rethink how he slashes defense spending while splashing out on domestic programs. One cannot say the president is missing in action on the major national security issue that is our country’s solvency—the president is missing, but never was in action. Congressional Republicans should dig in to prevent him from incurring greater risk to national defense to fund his domestic priorities. Presidential candidates should force the president to justify the trade-offs of his policies. Conservatives may have a range of views on whether to cut Pentagon spending, but they agree cuts should not be used to prime the pump for continued fiscal profligacy.