Spending Cuts and National Security

An op-ed by Peter Singer and Michael O’Hanlon in today’s Politico questions the impact of spending cuts on the military. “Substantial defense budget cuts are possible, make no mistake,” the Brookings’ scholars concede, “But they could mean loss of capability, and some may increase security risks.”

Another Brookings scholar, Robert Kagan, is more emphatic, telling Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post that “[The proposed cuts are] utterly irresponsible and dangerous to national security.” Max Boot agrees. Cuts of up to $1 trillion over the next 10 years “would be nothing short of a disaster.” Lawmakers who are considering such cuts, Boot claims, “are flirting with eviscerating American combat capabilities — and with it the role of the United States in world affairs.” AEI’s Tom Donnelly wails: “Nobody has defense as a high priority. It’s increasingly looking like everybody wants to toss the military overboard.”

Wow. Sounds scary. What is actually going on here?

For starters, the military’s budget has still not been cut. As I noted yesterday at the National Interest’s “The Skeptics”:

The Department of Defense has enjoyed an unbroken streak of rising budgets since 1998. In real, inflation-adjusted terms, U.S. taxpayers now spend more on national security than at any time since the end of World War II. An effort led by South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney to hold the DoD base budget to last year’s levels failed. Mulvaney’s amendment, which would have cut $17 billion from the budget voted out of committee, attracted support from more than a quarter of the House GOP caucus, but was ultimately defeated. So the DoD base budget that emerged from the House continues its growth.

Second, the various proposed cuts to future spending are just that: proposed. As with everything else associated with the debt negotations, the details matter a lot. The cuts might never materialize; future Congresses might simply renege on deals made this summer. More importantly, in nearly every case, they aren’t actual cuts. They are projections based against certain assumptions about future spending. And depending on inflation, the growth of the economy, and a host of other factors, those assumptions will change.

Up to this point, Kagan, Boot, Donnelly, and others have succeeded in fending off cuts to military spending. But it was never realistic to believe that one could cut government spending while leaving more than 50 percent of the discretionary budget off the table.

To her credit, Kori Schake is beginning to look past the immediate discussion over whether to cut the Pentagon’s budget, and is thinking about how to do so. The headline at Foreign Policy blares, “Out Come the Long Knives for Defense,” but the gist of her argument is more sophisticated, and far more realistic than the “no military cuts, no way” crowd:

Given the magnitude of our defense spending and the relatively advantageous position we occupy compared to the magnitude of threats facing the United States, we can afford to accept near-term risk by cutting defense spending in order to solve the larger strategic problem of our national indebtedness.

Though Schake likely opposes cuts in military spending along the lines that Ben Friedman and I sketched out here and here, she implores national security planners to begin thinking seriously about which missions are absolutely essential to U.S. national security and which missions that our military has been performing for decades can and should be handled by others. That is the approach that Friedman and I take in proposing a force structure guided by the lessons of the recent past: we should avoid costly and counterproductive nation-building missions; fighting terrorism does not require a massive military deployed in dozens of countries around the world; our allies can and should do more to defend themselves; and we should retain the ability to bring power from the air and sea in those very rare instances when distant crises might pose a direct threat to U.S. national security.

I hope that Schake sketches out more clearly which roles and missions we can afford to shed. And I hope that the claims that all missions are essential, and that any cuts in military spending will pose an intolerable risk, are shown for what they are: indefensible.