Gates’s Cuts that Aren’t

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is poised to axe or significantly restructure a number of high-profile weapons platforms, and otherwise rein in the Pentagon’s budget. The reports present these initiatives as intended to preempt greater scrutiny of the military’s budget by Congress.

The cuts will be announced later today, but it seems pretty clear that Gates will call for terminating the unnecessary Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a Marine Corps program that is more than 176 percent over its original per-vehicle cost. Unhappily for taxpayers, the Pentagon has already spent $3 billion on the program, which has managed to deliver only prototypes. The Marine Corps’s version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will also be delayed, according to news reports. And the secretary will continue his search for efficiencies in defense, an initiative that even the reliably conservative Washington Examiner finds worthy.

But amidst all the focus on “cuts”, two facts stand out:

1) Gates intends for the efficiencies, if they materialize, to be plowed back into the military’s coffers – not returned to taxpayers or used for reducing the deficit. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Morell told Politico’s Jen DiMascio ”any story which purports that he is going to announce that the services don’t get to keep and invest the savings they’ve made are flat out wrong.”

2) The Pentagon’s base budget, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is expected to grow in 2012. The FY 2011 base budget calls for spending $549 billion; the Obama administration is expected to request $554 billion for the Pentagon in its FY 2012 budget, which will be released next month. In real, inflation-adjusted dollars, that is a 42 percent increase over the base budget in 2001. When the costs of the wars are factored in, total Pentagon spending has grown 72 percent – again, in real terms – since 2001.

Keep those essential points in mind when you hear the predictable cries from the Defending Defense crowd that Gates is shortchanging the military as it fights two wars. He is doing nothing of the sort.

Indeed, although Gates’s moves are aimed at preempting Congress, members and their staffs aren’t fooled. One Senate aide told DiMascio that despite Gates’s prior cuts, there are still a number of troubled programs drawing billions of taxpayer dollars. “So we can cut,” he said. “We can cut and we can cut big.”

To make “big” cuts in the military’s budget without rethinking its missions would be a mistake. Instead, the Obama administration should be actively soliciting input on ways to reduce the military’s global posture; terminate the open-ended nation-building mission in Afghanistan, and stop planning similar missions in other failed states; and compel wealthy, stable allies to bear the costs and risks of their own defense. Such steps would allow the White House and Congress to responsibly restructure our military based on a realistic assessment of available means and achievable ends, with the savings being returned to U.S. taxpayers.