A Few Steps in the Right Direction on Military Spending

Someone has begun leaking elements of the Pentagon’s FY 2015 budget, and the leakers apparently want reporters to focus on proposed cuts in the U.S. Army. The headline in the New York Times warns readers that the Army will shrink to “a pre-World War II level.”The proposal,” explains the Times, “takes into account the fiscal reality of government austerity and the political reality of a president who pledged to end two costly and exhausting land wars. A result, the officials [who leaked to the Times] argue, will be a military capable of defeating any adversary, but too small for protracted foreign occupations.”

“You have to always keep your institution prepared” for the unknown, a senior Pentagon official told the Times, “but you can’t carry a large land-war Defense Department when there is no large land war.” 

Reaction from other Beltway insiders has been predictably apoplectic, but one doubts that the American public are terribly worried about a military that might be slightly less likely to get involved in unnecessary and counterproductive nation-building missions in distant lands. The war in Afghanistan started with strong public support, as it was clearly connected to the events of 9/11. It no longer is, and Americans want out. The salespeople for the war in Iraq tried to connect that escapade to 9/11, but the Iraq war effort also lost public support when that rationale fell away, and the costs mounted into the trillions. 

In this case, at least, the public is smarter than the politicians who supposedly represent them. Americans were unenthusiastic about the Libya caper of 2011, and they effectively blocked efforts to embroil the United States in the Syrian civil war last fall. The Pentagon’s budget might finally be reflecting the reality that the American people actually want President Obama to do what he said he was going to do: focus on nation building at home.

But the news is not all good. The Pentagon apparently still intends to retain 11 aircraft carriers, possibly cutting into modernization of the Navy’s surface combatant ships. As had been reported earlier, the venerable A-10 attack aircraft is going away, but the Pentagon remains committed to the troubled F-35. The early details don’t address the possible modernization of the nuclear triad, which is sure to compete with other Air Force and Navy priorities. If the Pentagon isn’t serious about confronting those tradeoffs, the resulting infighting could get ugly.

And there is a hint of the perennial Washington Monument strategy in the details that have been leaked so far. By proposing to cut some very popular programs, Pentagon budgeteers might hope that they can scare Congress into busting the very modest budget caps currently in place. The White House presumably would accept higher taxes in exchange for a bit more spending. Republicans in Congress want domestic spending cuts to offset additional military spending. And neither side seems inclined to add to the deficit. So it is hard to see how that impasse gets broken. For now, the Pentagon’s budget apparently fits the spending cap of $496 billion negotiated late last year, but additional cuts will be needed if the sequestration provisions of the 2011 Budget Control Act take effect in 2016 and beyond.

As more details dribble out today and into next week, it is important to keep everything in context. True, the Army will be smaller, declining from a post-Iraq high of 566,000 in 2011, to perhaps as few as 440,000 active-duty troops, about 40,000 fewer than the late 1990s average. But the force retains enormous capabilities across a range of contingencies. In the words of the senior Pentagon official, this “very significant-sized Army” is “going to be agile. It will be capable. It will be modern. It will be trained.”

That sounds like the kind of force that Americans want and expect. Given rapidly rising personnel costs, and the great political difficulty of reining them in, the only way to achieve actual savings may be a smaller active-duty force. That is what Ben Friedman and I suggested over three years ago, and with this latest proposal, we might actually be heading in that direction.