Advancing a Free Society

The Pentagon gets off the wagon

Friday, August 5, 2011

The American military has played a prominent role the past couple of years in raising public concern about the damage that the magnitude of our national debt poses for American security.  The commander of Joint Forces Command started DOD’s 2010 planning cycle identifying our national debt as a major threat, and highlighting that unless our federal finances were put on a sustainable footing, entitlement spending and debt interest payments would crowd out necessary defense spending.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has consistently made the argument that debt is the greatest threat to our national security, and supported cuts to defense spending as part of reducing federal outlays.

How, then, to understand the strident resistance on display from Admiral Mullen and all four Service Vice Chiefs in the past week to further cuts in defense spending?  The concern being evinced now from the Pentagon is that reluctance by the White House and Congress during the recent debt ceiling negotiations to broadening the tax base and reducing entitlement spending portends reducing the debt principally by cuts to discretionary spending.  And that means drastic cuts to defense.

The Obama Administration has several times indicated its preference for cuts to defense spending:

  • Secretary Gates wrung $100 billion out of existing defense programs last year, intending to redirect the money within DOD, only to have the President take it away from Defense accounts;
  • the only element of federal spending singled out for cuts in the President’s April budget speech was Defense, which the President said would be cut by $400 billion across a decade or so -- despite Secretary Gates’ exhortions that any additional cuts would deeply damage America’s security;
  • the President’s frequent and cavalier references to DOD spending as so huge that cuts to it would fund other programs -- like student loans -- that he values more highly.

The backlash from Secretary Panetta, Admiral Mullen, General Dempsey (the just-confirmed next Chairman), and Service Vice Chiefs comes from the realization at DOD that our national debate is skirting cuts to entitlement programs and restructuring the tax code.  The White House submitted a budget that did not garner a single vote in the Senate; the Senate has not produced a budget in two years.  The Congressional committee charged with identifying an additional $1.4 billion in spending cuts is likely to deadlock, triggering automatic across the board spending cuts that will fall heavily on defense.

DOD has prepared for cuts on the margin -- five percent or so reduced from current spending projections, or roughly $35 billion a year.  It is reeling at the prospect the Administration would cede responsibility for funding the Commander in Chief’s duties and allow defense to become the major bill payer for debt reduction.

(photo credit: BenSpark)