Military Spending and the Budget Deal

The budget deal announced last night offers two sets of potential cuts in military spending.

The first set of potential cuts, created by the budget caps, target “security” spending. That includes the Pentagon, State, foreign aid, the Department of Homeland Security and Veterans (the discretionary portion of Veterans spending, to be precise). The deal caps “security” spending at $684 billion for this fiscal year and $686 for the next. That requires little pain; the 2012 security cap is only $5 billion below what we’ll spend on those categories in fiscal 2011. The White House claims that the caps will generate $350 billion in savings from base defense spending for ten years. They get there, dubiously, by projecting security spending at the capped level across the decade, even after the caps expire, and counting as savings the difference between that spending trajectory and what CBO now projects. They are also assuming that all the savings go to defense, even though Republicans will try to make the other security categories absorb the pain.

The second set of potential cuts, which occur automatically if the Joint Committee fails to reach its spending cut goals, target defense spending directly. This could add $500 billion in defense cuts over ten years, the White House says.

Assuming that is true, the maximum amount of defense cuts possible here is $850 billion. That is a cut of roughly 15 percent compared to planned spending based on the president’s February 2011 budget submission — not including the wars. It is roughly on par with the cuts proposed by the Bowles-Simpson Commission. The total savings are much lower, roughly half, if you compare the cuts to what we actually spend now, rather than the increases we were planning on in past planning documents.

And remember, that $850 billion is a maximum; it may not materialize. It will be lower, if, as hawks hope, the cuts fall on the non-defense elements of the security category. It will be lower if the Joint Committee finds other accounts to cut, avoiding the triggers.

Still, that possible amount is enough to make hawks apoplectic. We are sure to hear more complaints about “gutting or “hollowing out” the force. But let’s keep some facts about military spending in mind:

The Pentagon’s budget has more than doubled over the past decade, and current projections call for the Pentagon to receive more than $6 trillion from U.S. taxpayers through 2021. If its budget got cut by 15 percent, that would return us to roughly 2007 levels. That hardly seems like “gutting”. After such cuts, we would still account for more than 40 percent of global military spending, and our margin of military superiority over any combination of rivals would remain unrivaled.

The focus should now shift to strategy. The White House says the Pentagon’s ongoing roles and missions review will guide the first round of security cuts. The aim is to eliminate military capabilities that are unnecessary or provided by multiple services. We should go deeper, looking to what missions, allies, and possible wars, we can jettison.  The recommendations should guide not only the first set of cuts, but also the second. That means making recommendations for the Joint Committee on additional defense cuts and preparing for automatic cuts should they occur. There is nothing preventing those cuts from being achieved by retiring force structure required by needless missions—such as defending rich allies that can defend themselves.

We should also keep in mind that this deal hardly solves our deficit problem and does not exhaust the possible savings we should seek. Deeper military cuts are possible and could even enhance security given the right strategy.