Tag: pentagon budget

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.

SecDef Should Tackle Personnel Costs

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel went before the House Armed Services Committee to answer questions about President Obama’s proposed FY 2014 military budget. The request for $526.6 billion for the base DoD budget is $3.9 billion lower than the 2012 enacted level. While this reduction is a positive step, it doesn’t go far enough given the nation’s fiscal state and changing military requirements, and it exceeds the spending caps mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act by $55 billion.

For more insight on the budget numbers and what this means politically, see my colleague Ben Friedman’s excellent post from yesterday. I want to focus on an area of the budget that cries out for reform: rising personnel costs.

During his testimony, Hagel reiterated the need to rein in such costs, echoing themes from his speech last week at the National Defense University. The president’s budget aims to reduce these costs by cutting end strength, limiting the size of pay increases (to 1 percent), and making “benefit adjustments” to TRICARE. Such adjustments are critical to the department in the long term.

A political battle over these types of reductions is all but certain; however, some members of Congress—perhaps most—will resist. This is unfortunate, especially for fiscal conservatives who understand the need to reform entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, yet fail to see the need to contain skyrocketing costs in personnel and benefits at DoD. The arguments are the same: the current path is unsustainable; reforms are needed or the costs will consume the rest of the budget; and if you implement the reforms sooner, they can be more incremental and less disruptive to the troops. But then again, farsightedness isn’t Congress’s strong suit.

Personnel costs, which account for approximately 32 percent of the budget request (over 45 percent when civilian pay and benefits are included), need to be addressed. The administration has proposed cutting conventional forces—mainly from within the Army and Marine Corps—by 100,000. Hagel has mentioned reducing the civilian workforce, but he hasn’t outlined specifically how he would downsize the “world’s largest back office.”

As Ben Friedman points out, it is also important to keep in mind that the $526.6 billion base budget request does not accurately represent the total cost of national defense. For instance, Overseas Contingency Operations (OCOs)—war funding—is a separate request. Many believe that as we draw down in Afghanistan, OCO funding will come down. But Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in yesterday’s hearing that those costs are likely to remain fairly steady for the next few years. Despite the fact that many budget projections count the drawdown in Afghanistan as “savings,” the United States will remain in Afghanistan for years to come.

When you factor in the budgets of other the defense-related items—nuclear weapons management under the Department of Energy, the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and Veteran Affairs—total spending on national defense soars to over $900 billion.

There is plenty of room for further cuts in this massive total, especially if we rethink what we ask our military to do. Shedding security commitments and unnecessary missions would allow for a budget that reflects our level of security. But the administration can start by addressing the costs relating to personnel. Otherwise, the future does not look bright for Pentagon budgets. 

Obama’s 2014 Military Spending Request

The Obama administration $640.5 billion fiscal year 2014 request for military spending authority is predictably unrealistic and excessive. Still, political circumstance continues to drag the Pentagon toward fiscal restraint. 

That $640.5 billion includes $88.5 billion for war (a.k.a. overseas contingency operations), $526.6 for non-war spending in the Department of Defense, and another $25.4 billion spending outside DoD, mostly for nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy, which officially counts as “national defense” or budget function 050 spending. 

Those spending levels ignore the budgetary cap set by law and the political reality it reflects. The $552 billion requested in 2014 for non-war “national defense” spending exceeds by $55 billion the spending cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, as amended by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. Were Congress to enact the president’s budget and leave the cap in place, that total would be sequestered equally across “defense” spending categories, including the war. 

Even if Congress agrees to a grand bargain altering the caps, military spending will likely face additional cuts. Republican resistance to tax hikes and Democratic protection of entitlements mean that any deal they cut will likely again target discretionary spending, more than half of which goes to the military. Of course, Congress’ failure thus far to undo this year’s more onerous sequestration suggests that no deal is likely. An over-under on where the non-war Pentagon budget winds up for 2014 would be closer to $500 billion than $550 billion. 

In a certain light, there is some sacrifice here. The non-war DoD request of $526.6 billion is just $1.2 billion more than last year’s request. Factoring in inflation, it’s about a 1.5 percent cut. This budget would bring the portion of GDP going to the military to 4 percent, versus. 4.3 percent this year, according to the administration. And as Russell Rumbaugh points out, DoD’s projected spending over ten years is down $114 billion from a year ago. 

On the other hand, the request would be a substantial increase over the $493 billion that the Pentagon actually got from Congress this year, after sequestration (see page 10 here). Economic growth is the main reason that a declining portion of national wealth is going to the military. And the cuts scheduled over the decade would arrive mostly in its second half, when someone else is president, meaning that the cuts are basically imaginary

Additionally, the “placeholder” request of $88.5 billion in Pentagon funds for war—the same as last year—is suspiciously high. The administration says they will revise the request once they determine force levels in Afghanistan. But the president already announced plans to halve total U.S. troops there from 68,000 to 34,000 by next February. Even with the increased cost from exiting, the total cost should be far lower. The Pentagon is likely continuing to use the war budget to dodge caps and fund personnel and other non-war functions. Meanwhile, the administration still claims to support a ten-year cap on war spending. As Charles Knight and I explain here, that is a feckless gesture at a good idea. 

One reason why the Pentagon request is unrealistically and unnecessarily large is that it’s part of a struggle with Republicans over the shape of deficit reduction. The White House may be holding military spending cuts in reserve to offer as an alternative to tax increases that Republicans will refuse. Another, more fundamental, reason is that the administration remains wedded to the liberal internationalist species of the militarist consensus that sees U.S. military power as the linchpin to global stability, trade, and liberalization. Here are some newer arguments against that bipartisan consensus. Hopefully the new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, shares some of that skepticism and will demonstrate it once he has time to guide the budget. 

Given our safety, we should stop spending on the military as we did at the height of the Cold War. The Pentagon budget should comply with the spending cap by making choices among missions and goals, rather than clinging to existing alliances and ambitions. The cuts on offer are mostly efficiencies—they require doing the same things more cheaply. Some reforms of this kind, like the administration’s proposal to increase TRICARE fees and start another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round, can save big bucks, though Congress will probably ignore them. Bigger cuts require larger choices. If, for example, we shed allies and the pretension that stability everywhere depends on our military presence, far deeper cuts to each service, especially the ground forces, are possible. We could cut a leg or two of the nuclear delivery-vehicle triad without sacrificing deterrence. One virtue of austerity is to encourage these sorts of overdue choices.

Sequestration Is a Small Victory for Budget Hawks

The budget battles in Washington, D.C., are far from over. President Obama’s attempt to break the stalemate by reaching across the aisle and dining with GOP members two days in a row seems more about show than substance. 

The apparent lack of urgency to undo the cuts underscores what we knew all along: the world did not end under sequestration. Most of the cuts will be phased in over the next few months. The defense cuts amount to just 6.5 percent of total spending on national security (Pentagon base budget plus war costs). This is a pittance, and spending will still dwarf what we spent before 9/11. Those who claim that the cuts will undermine American security should explain how we managed to win the Cold War while spending much less, on average. (To learn more about proposals that would maintain a highly capable, but less costly, military, attend our event on March 14th.) 

There is still the possibility that most of this year’s cuts, or the caps on planned spending over the next decade, may not materialize. Congress could reverse the cuts in the future as part of a grand bargain. Or they could simply punt without one. Meanwhile, legislation is moving along that would allow the Pentagon and other agencies to implement the cuts with greater discretion across department programs. This is a good thing, potentially. Smarter cuts are desirable, but we should be on the lookout to ensure that Congress doesn’t simply legislate away any cuts, dumb or otherwise. 

Nonetheless, the fact that military spending actually declined is a small victory. But how will future battles play out? Are the neocons and their supporters in retreat? In a piece running today at Foreign Policy, I offer a cautionary note. Just because the fiscal hawks won this time doesn’t mean that they’ll win the next one, or the one after that: 

The defense contractors and special interests still have enormous firepower in Washington, and they’ve turned their attention to the “continuing resolution” that will fund the government for the remainder of the year. Meanwhile, the neoconservatives are single-minded and relentless. Their tenacity paid off in their bid to launch a war in Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, but failed to stop Chuck Hagel’s nomination and eventual confirmation as secretary of defense.

The budget fight matters even more. A $470 billion military is more than sufficient to fight the wars the United States truly needs to fight, but not the wars that the neocons want to fight. The next phase in the fight over the Pentagon’s budget should focus less on how much the United States spends on defense, but rather why it spends so much. If we are going to give our military less than it expected to have three or four years ago, we need to think about asking it to do less.

Read the full article here.

Romney’s 4 Percent: A Goal not a Promise, but Still Expensive

The advisers who introduced Mitt Romney to the idea that he should spend at least 4 percent of GDP on the Pentagon’s budget are busy clarifying what he means. But “their comments,” conclude Bloomberg’s Gopal Ratnam and Tony Capaccio:

only add to the uncertainty about how much a President Romney might add to the Pentagon’s budget and when, what the additional spending would buy other than more warships and how he’d propose to pay for what analysts say may be as much as $2 trillion in added spending while also whittling down the federal deficit as he’s promised.

Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller in George W. Bush’s administration, told Ratnam and Capaccio that Romney’s 4 percent promise is a goal that “is not going to be achieved overnight or perhaps even by the end of the first term.” How quickly Romney reaches his 4 percent target, Zakheim explained at an event last week organized by the group Military Reporters & Editors, “will very much depend on the state of the economy and very much depends on the offsets you’ll be able to find within the defense budget,” but he affirmed that “Every effort will be made to ramp up as soon as possible.”

Differing assumptions about the pace of Romney’s increase explain the continued confusion surrounding his 4 percent plan. Zakheim had earlier claimed that the $2 trillion estimate cited by Obama “is essentially an assumption that we go to 4 percent of GDP from the get-go.” The Romney campaign, he explained, doesn’t intend to “come in with a massive supplemental” to the current budget to boost defense spending.

Others, including vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, have criticized the $2 trillion figure, but have failed to offer their own estimate of the likely costs of Romney’s promise. In particular, Romney supporters have singled out an analysis by Travis Sharp of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), and have accused Sharp and CNAS of running cover for Obama. In earlier remarks to reporters, Zakheim asserted that the $2 trillion was concocted by Democrats, for shock value, and that it should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

As to the question of how the additional Pentagon spending would be paid for, James Carafano at the Heritage Foundation shared some ideas with Ratnam and Capaccio. Romney may be able to reach the 4 percent of GDP goal by the end of the first term and still cut deficits as he has promised “with two caveats,” Carafano explained. Romney would have to get “tax reform done and address long-term entitlement spending.”

Slowly but surely, we are starting to understand Romney’s promise. And who said presidential campaigns were a waste of time?

A few clarifications are still in order, however.

First, the claim that the $2 trillion figure was created by Democrats and the president’s supporters is false. I first estimated–before Travis Sharp did–the likely costs of Romney’s four percent pledge here. Since then, I have twice revisited my estimates (here and here), settling most recently on two figures: $1.85 trillion in additional spending if Romney reached the 4 percent target in 4 years; $1.7 trillion if he reached it at the end of his second term. I noted, also, the remaining unknowns: what is included within the base budget, and GDP (I have deliberately used CBO projections, the most conservative – Obama/OMB and Romney believe that GDP will grow faster). I also note that a number of others, none of them obvious “Obama supporters”, have questioned Romney’s 4 percent promise, including Byron Callan, a defense industry analyst with Capital Alpha Partners LLC, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s Todd Harrison.

Second, the two “caveats” at the center of Carafano’s supposition that Romney could achieve his goal by the end of his first term without increasing the deficit are more than that; on the contrary, the belief that Mitt Romney can achieve long-term entitlement reform and fundamental tax reform within the next four years strains credulity to the breaking point.

The fundamental reform of “long-term entitlement spending,” though badly overdue, is not seriously on offer by either Republicans or Democrats, and would not generate significant savings in the short term, in other words, by the time that Romney wanted to ramp up military spending. His spending, therefore, would grow the deficit, at least in the short term.

Equally dubious is the presumption that far-reaching tax reform – the elimination of some deductions in exchange for lower marginal tax rates – is likely any time soon. For starters, many fiscal hawks oppose any reform that results in higher revenue. More revenue, by definition, is a tax increase, something that is still verboten among most Republicans. And with good reason. “The American people know,” said Michelle Dimarob, spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), “when Washington politicians call for higher taxes it is to fuel more Washington spending.” “Americans,” Dimarob concluded, ”don’t want to pay more in taxes to bailout Washington.”

She’s right, and they don’t change their tune when the Pentagon is doing the spending. This study (.pdf, Q56) found that a plurality (including 52.2 percent of Republicans) are opposed to paying higher taxes in order to fund a still larger military. Other recent polls have found that Americans support military spending cuts (here, here and here), and barely one in four Americans (27 percent) believe that we should be spending more, according to a recent Rasmussen survey. In short, Pentagon spending boosters might succeed in pushing through a tax increase, but this would likely be unpopular with voters.

So, after all of this, I’m still left with two nagging questions: will Mitt Romney’s promise to spend more on the military win him votes? And, if he is elected, can he achieve his goal of spending 4 percent of GDP on the Pentagon without raising taxes or increasing the deficit?

Recalculating Romney’s Four Percent Gimmick

I have a new piece up at ForeignPolicy.com on Ron Paul and the Republican Party, focused in particular on the strong support that Paul draws from young people, with some additional speculation about where those young people will end up, if and when Paul steps back from his very public role. My instincts are that these young people are motivated at least as much by the ideas that Paul espouses as by Ron Paul, the person. If I am correct, many of them are likely to remain active in politics. I close with a warning to GOP leaders that they would be making a grave error if they ignored this libertarian-leaning voting bloc. Unfortunately, that is what the GOP’s leading candidate, Mitt Romney, seems to be doing by pushing a short-sighted plan for boosting military spending at a time when the country is awash in debt.

I have always been puzzled by the fact that conservatives who rail against welfare dependency here at home miss the pernicious effects of security dependency among our allies. Tim Pawlenty didn’t get it. Neither does Mitt Romney. Rather than questioning the mantras that have guided U.S. foreign policy for over a generation, Romney simply assumes that the United States will remain the world’s policeman, other countries will continue to free-ride on our security guarantees, and U.S. taxpayers will happily foot the bill. He proposes spending at least four percent of GDP on the military’s base budget, plus whatever additional money might be needed to fight the wars that he wants to fight (for example, this one).

I commented on the Four Percent Gimmick a few months ago, and now I have a bit more detail about Romney’s plan relative to the Obama administration’s latest 10-year projections. I alluded to these numbers in the ForeignPolicy.com piece, and below provide some more detail. (I am grateful, as always, for the help of my colleague Charles Zakaib in sorting through these, and in preparing the charts).

The chart above shows spending in nominal, current-year dollars, over the next ten years. The Obama administration plans to spend $5.7 trillion between 2013 and 2022 (the blue bars). If Romney keeps his promise of four percent for defense, he will spend at least $8.3 trillion (using OMB’s GDP projections) over that same period, an additional $2.58 trillion (the yellow bars). His budget in 2022 would top $1 trillion, and would be at least 61 percent higher than Barack Obama’s. He hasn’t said what other spending he will cut, or what taxes he would increase, to cover that difference. Until he does, it is logical to conclude that he plans to pile on more debt.

And we should remember that current laws call for even less spending than President Obama has proposed, but he has chosen to ignore the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act. GOP leaders in Congress seem equally disinterested in following through on their promise to kick the spending habit, and several have put forward plans to undo sequestration for the Department of Defense. Either way, the bottom line is more debt. As I speculate at ForeignPolicy.com, no wonder young people seem to like Ron Paul so much (and Mitt Romney so little).

Another way to demonstrate the absurdity of Romney’s plan is to control for inflation and compare it to future and past trends. Looking ahead, in constant, 2012 dollars, annual Pentagon spending will average $744.8 billion over the next ten years—again assuming the same GDP projections as Obama’s plan. That is 44 percent higher than Obama’s average budget (the bright pink line) over that same period, and nearly 59 percent higher than sequestration (the dark red line).

Now consider how this compares with the recent past. As you can see, Romney’s Four Percent Gimmick would result in taxpayers spending more than twice as much on the Pentagon as in 2000 (111 percent higher, to be precise), and 45 percent more than in 1985, the height of the Reagan buildup. Over the next ten years, Romney’s annual spending (in constant dollars) for the Pentagon would average 64 percent higher than annual post-Cold War budgets (1990-2012), and 42 percent more than the average during the Reagan era (1981-1989).

Mitt Romney may genuinely believe that today’s enemies are 42 percent more frightening than the big bad Soviets. He might believe that spending an average of $450 billion (in constant dollars) every year since 1990 has left the country dangerously vulnerable. If that is true, he should say so. More importantly, however, he should be compelled to answer the question on everyone’s mind: Where is he going to get the money to fund his Pentagon spending binge?

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Pentagon Budget: Myth vs. Reality

Over the past few weeks, a number of pernicious myths have popped up regarding the Pentagon’s budget. Here I want to dispel these myths with an exhaustive, and exhausting, look at the details. The charts below, compiled with my colleague Charles Zakaib, should help.

The President’s Budget officially requests $613.9 billion for the Pentagon FY 2013, broken down between $525.4 billion in the Pentagon’s base budget, and another $88.5 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)—mainly the war in Afghanistan. This compares to a base budget and OCO of $530.5 billion and $115.1 billion, respectively, for FY 2012. (For other good overviews, see Chris Hellman’s analysis for the National Priorities Project; and Carl Conetta’s “Keeping Pentagon Cuts in Perspective” [.pdf] for the Project on Defense Alternatives).

There are, however, other costs in the budget that should be lumped under the rubric of national defense. For starters, there is about $33 billion in the non-Pentagon portion of what is official classified as “national defense.” Aside from the Pentagon and the wars, that includes the cost of the nation’s nuclear weapons (chiefly within the Department of Energy), and some mandatory spending not captured in the DoD base budget and OCO figures shown above. That brings requested defense spending to $647.4 billion. In addition, as Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information points out, the Obama administration has requested $137.7 billion for Veterans Affairs, and $46 billion for homeland security (that’s a government-wide total compiled by the Office and Management and Budget, excluding the defense portion). Wheeler also points to another $29.4 billion in military retirement and DoD retiree health care costs (these show up under budget functions 550, 650, and 950). All the items above total about $860 billion.

Americans likely spend even more on things loosely connected to national security. For example, there might be some additional intelligence spending that is not captured in the above numbers. Wheeler suggests that we should also count the International Affairs budget ($69.8 bn), and the DoD’s portion of interest on the debt ($63.7 bn). According to Wheeler’s calculations, the actual “defense” budget proposed for 2013 weighs in at a whopping $994.3 billion.

In the charts below, however, I have chosen to focus solely on the Pentagon’s base budget, excluding the wars, and the various other costs mentioned above that are not counted under the “National Defense” budget function (aka 050 for budget geeks).

Chart 1 shows different baseline projections for DoD spending, beginning with President Bush’s final budget in FY 2009 (the dark red line). All are shown in constant 2012 dollars. The President’s Budget for FY 2013, the bright pink line, will average $517 billion over the next decade. The ten-year projections from his earlier budget requests for FY 2011 and FY 2012 are shown as dark blue and light blue, respectively. The dark green line shows the budget levels dictated by the sequestration provisions of last year’s Budget Control Act.

At first glance, the changes appear to be quite significant. The administration claims that its budget achieves $486.9 billion in savings by 2021, but that is in nominal dollars, and measured against the FY 2012 baseline. By my calculations, the gap between the top line shown in the chart (FY 2011) and the most recent request accumulates to $667 billion in real, inflation-adjusted savings over nine years.

Either way, it looks as though a lot of money has been shaved off the budget. Taxpayers and deficit hawks should be pleased. The “defending defense” crowd is appalled.

But there is less here than meets the eye (or more, depending on your perspective). The following three charts show how the Pentagon’s base budget compares to the past 15 years, and the past 35 years. In all cases, the figures are shown in constant, FY 2012 dollars.

The first shows that the Pentagon’s budget, according to the Obama administration’s projections, will average $517 billion over the next decade, slightly more than what we spent in 2008 ($511 bn), and 38 percent more than we spent in 1998 ($375 bn).

The second chart below displays the new projections in a wider historical context, going all the way back to 1976. We spent, on average, $523 billion during the Reagan Era (1981-1990).

Finally, I have included one chart that shows all of these figures, from 1976 to 2022 against a Y-axis starting at $0. Starting the axis at $300 billion (as I have done in the other charts in order to differentiate the projected baselines) can produce the visual effect of apparent sharp increases or declines, when in fact most of these have been quite modest.

The bottom line? People may disagree about whether national security threats are more urgent today, and therefore require much more money than we spent in the 1980s to defeat the Soviet Union. For my part, I have long argued we are vastly safer than we were a generation ago. But it isn’t accurate to say that the Pentagon’s budget has been gutted or cut to the bone.