Cutting Pentagon spending will fix U.S. defense strategy
New US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arrives for his first day at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, July 1, 2011. (Getty Images)
November 4th, 2011
11:00 PM ET

Cutting Pentagon spending will fix U.S. defense strategy

Editor's Note: Benjamin Friedman is Research Fellow in Defense and Homeland Security Studies at the Cato Institute.  The views expressed in this article are solely those of Benjamin Friedman.

By Benjamin Friedman, Foreign Affairs

Washington's defense hawks are circling the wagons to defend the Pentagon's budget. The Obama administration has instructed the military to reduce planned spending over the next decade by about $400 billion, or eight percent over time. The Budget Control Act, the culmination of the debt-ceiling standoff this summer, could double those cuts. In response, senior defense officials, congressional committee chairs, and think tanks funded by military contractors have warned that excessive reductions will result in a fighting force that lacks the resources for its missions.

The Pentagon's boosters are right that big cuts will limit military capabilities. But that would actually be a good thing for the United States. Shrinking the U.S. military would not only save a fortune but also encourage policymakers to employ the armed services less promiscuously, keeping American troops - and the country at large - out of needless trouble. Especially for the last two decades, the United States' considerable wealth and fortunate geography have made global adventurism seem largely costless. The 2011 U.S. military budget of nearly $700 billion is higher in real terms than at any point during the Cold War. But for the American public (except the members of the military and their families, that is), the only real impact of such spending has been marginally higher taxes, which have lately been subsidized by deficits. As a result, leaders confuse needs and ambitions. Going beyond the demands of the White House and the Budget Control Act and cutting the non-war military budget by at least 20 percent would be a first step toward addressing this problem.

Austerity is an efficient auditor. It forces Washington to scrutinize expenses and to prioritize. Recall that the George W. Bush administration, with little controversy, cut taxes, fought two wars, expanded non-war defense spending, and added an expensive prescription drug benefit to Medicare - all at roughly the same time. Deficit concerns have now made such fiscal imprudence impossible. Politicians eager to avoid tax increases and entitlement cuts have finally begun questioning Pentagon largesse, and for the first time since the late 1990s, military reductions are on the table.

How to Cut the Defense Budget Responsibly

They are not yet guaranteed, however. The White House says the Budget Control Act locks in lower defense spending. But the bill caps spending for just two years and allows the other "security" agencies - the State Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Nuclear Security Administration - to bear the required cuts. And those cuts are small: only about $4 billion in 2012 compared to 2011, amounting to less than one percent. Because the caps do not apply to war spending, moreover, Congress can evade reductions by re-labeling base spending as war costs. Senate appropriators already protected $10 billion using this gimmick in their proposed 2012 budget.

The act requires another $500 billion in military spending cuts over ten years if the Joint Congressional Committee fails to identify $1.2 trillion in government-wide savings that Congress then passes. But these additional cuts, known as sequestration, are unlikely, too. Neither the White House nor a congressional majority supports sequestering Pentagon funds. In fact, they have all of 2012 to change the law to avoid it, should the joint committee fail. Lawmakers in both parties, including Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), have already suggested such an option.

Far bigger savings are possible if the Pentagon is recast as a true defense agency rather than one aimed at something far more ambitious. And cuts would force U.S. officials to prioritize. For starters, they would have to recognize that the U.S. military is currently structured to exercise power abroad, not provide self-defense. The U.S. Navy patrols the globe in the name of protecting global commerce, even though markets easily adapt to supply disruptions and other states have good reason to protect their own shipments. Washington maintains enormous ground forces in order to conduct nation-building missions abroad - despite the fact that such missions generally fail at great cost. Garrisons in Germany and South Korea have become subsidies that allow Cold War-era allies to avoid self-reliance.

Not only are these missions unnecessary, they are counterproductive. They turn economically capable allies into dependents, provoke animosity in far-flung corners of the globe, and encourage states to balance U.S. military power, often with nuclear weapons. A strategy based on restraint would allow Washington to save at least about $1.2 trillion over a decade, three times what the Obama administration is now asking for.

Big Business Is Good for America

Here is a breakdown of those estimated savings over the next ten years:

Fewer missions would require fewer forces and lower procurement and operational costs. A U.S. Navy that surges to fight rare wars could operate three fewer carrier battle groups and air wings, leaving eight and seven, respectively; retain half as many expeditionary strike groups, leaving five; and cut the number of planned ships from 313 to 241. It could buy one attack submarine annually, rather than two, reducing the total to 40 by 2020, rather than 2028, as now planned. The littoral combat ships and the Marines' F-35B, the short-takeoff and vertical-landing version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - both currently under development - would be cancelled. Savings: $127 billion.

The Air Force can do without a third of its roughly 2,000 fighter and attack aircraft (including those in the National Guard and Reserves). Precision munitions have vastly increased each aircraft's striking power. Moreover, the Navy provides several strike alternatives to land-based fighters and bombers. Savings: $89 billion.

If Washington avoids protracted occupations of restive states and defends fewer allies, the Pentagon could lose a quarter of a million troops from the Marines and Army via retirement alone. Savings: $287 billion.

With a reduced force structure, each service would need less housing and administrative support and the Pentagon could employ fewer officers, civilians, and contractors. Combatant commands could be consolidated or eliminated. Additionally, intelligence, research, and development budgets can be cut by 10-15 percent. Savings: $420 billion.

Why We Still Need Nuclear Power

The Pentagon spends a growing portion of its budget on pay and benefits. Experience indicates that it could slow increases in military pay and raise health-care charges without much damage to recruiting. Additional savings can come from reducing commissary discounts. Such steps will grow less controversial as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end. Savings: $130 billion.

U.S. nuclear superiority is so overwhelming that halving the nuclear arsenal and eliminating nuclear-armed bombers would not jeopardize the ability to retaliate sufficiently against a nuclear first strike. Missile defense should cease to be a program intended to protect the U.S. population, an impossible objective against a well-armed foe, and run by a special agency. The military services should instead manage their own programs aimed at protecting their forces from missiles. Savings: $120 billion.

Washington's defense establishment is incapable of making the kind of strategic shift these cuts would suggest, as politicians remains wedded to existing American military commitments. The White House, moreover, considers strategy a question for the military, and the Pentagon is never going to slash its own budget by explaining the uselessness of its own missions.

Those looking to trim the Pentagon budget significantly should follow the Nike approach: Just do it. Telling the services what their new budget is, but not how to reach it, will force a new kind of efficiency on the Pentagon. Military leaders will prioritize when they have to. With less money, they will sacrifice less important tasks and administrative bloat while salvaging their favored missions. Meanwhile, civilian leaders should jettison the so-called golden ratio, by which each service receives a fixed share of the Pentagon budget. If the services are forced to compete for the same funds, as they did in the 1950s, they will expose flaws in others' arguments and improve their own.

The danger in shedding military capability is that policymakers will try to do more with less, overburdening the force and endangering missions. But given the cost of the status quo, that is a risk worth taking.

 The views expressed in this article are solely those of Benjamin Friedman.

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Topics: Economy • Military • United States

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Linda Swisher, PhD

    Kudos!! Well analyzed. Well expressed. Congress- please read!!!

    November 5, 2011 at 1:03 am | Reply
  2. george thorn

    Great article EXCEPT for the end. Give the pentagon a budget and TRUST them to make rational choices and NOT sabotage the process? My years of service in government finance suggest the opposite.Bureaucracies will, in fact, burn you at the stake to protect their kingdom. It is up to the civilian control to manage the mission.

    November 5, 2011 at 7:26 am | Reply
  3. sarah monokot

    If you US didn't spend all their money on the war, they wouldn't have to raise the debt ceiling. They either have to raise the debt ceiling or cut spending costs or China might take over. If you don't know what the US debt ceiling is, this article gives an awesome explanation on it.

    November 5, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Reply
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      November 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  4. wayne kutter

    I don’t agree with some areas here, the littoral combat ships will actually save the US money as they are replacing multiple aging ship classes like frigates and destroyers, once fully operational with all the planned weapon systems installed this ship will be able to do the job of ships three times its size with only a third of the required personal. Another bonus of this program is that it will keep a generations of American engineers and technicians employed for the next 20 years providing some much needed jobs and making sure the US is at the leading edge in the design and development of modern fighting ships, the export market is also looking good for this ship with many smaller nations showing an interest, so more tax dollars for the US. As you can see we need to look at the wider picture I would like to see some of calculations revised to include my points.

    November 5, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    The defence budget was more than $700bn last year – representing the largest portion of the US federal government's discretionary budget. Robert Gates had already announced a $78 billion budget cut over the next 5 years in January. He was sceptical about whether large military vehicles, like tanks and EFVs, will continue to be crucial instruments as fighting in modern warfare changes.

    November 6, 2011 at 6:50 am | Reply
  6. gi joe

    This is crazy you should go to each military familiy that gets booted because you think the military is the problem with the united states debt. they already make next to nothing they sacrifice their lives and because you make 6 figures while everyone else makes next to nothing they no longer have a job and have spent 4-6-10-15 years sacrificing for this country you make them homeless with no warning you sir deserve less happy veterans day

    November 11, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  7. lproth

    War costs, you either pay with cash for the best equipment, sweet with good training or you pay with what Mr. Benjamin Friedman is asking.....The blood of American Soldiers,....I was one of those soldiers and talked to with British soldiers in southern Iraq about how hollow their military had become and how poor their equipment and training was, and finally how it had cost them lives.... This is real world Benjamin Friedman.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  8. Mongo

    Defense spending does need to be curtailed, but it should be done through the lens of a broader strategy. We still have not fully acheived a Joint approach to resourcing and applying military power, and routinely invest in redundant and non-interoperable systems. Additionally, we need to fix our FMS policies. If we expect our coalition partners to defend themselves, then we need to enable our defense industry to compete effectively and share our modern technology while we still have have a relative advantage (in 10 years, US defense tech will face many true peers).

    The biggest challenge to national security is not China, Iran, or Russia. It is our national debt. Yes, defense spending is a contributor, but an extremely minor one. Defense spending as a percentage of GDP (the cost to defend our prosperity) is near historic lows. No, the real drive of our debt is the imbalance between mandatory spending and taxation revenue, reflective of our nation's shift towards socialism. If we don't wean ourselves from this, we too will go the way of Greece.

    November 14, 2011 at 6:16 am | Reply
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