Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is the author of the new ebook, The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.
By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN
As the full details of President Obama’s new defense strategy and budget plan come out this week, I still have a few questions about what appears overall to be a well conceived plan for a leaner and somewhat less expensive American military.
My greatest concern is also the broadest: Even as the military is making cuts, and other so-called discretionary accounts are doing so too, entitlements remain spared by Democrats and tax increases of any sort remain anathema to Republicans. We cannot balance the budget on the 40 percent of federal spending within the so-called discretionary accounts. A broader approach is badly needed. If politics make that difficult now, we at least need informed debate on what either party would do to cut deficits by at least two-thirds if given the chance by voters in November.
Beyond that broad point, I am not convinced that the Obama plan produces enough savings. It may not accord with the budgetary goals set out in the first tranche of the Budget Control Act, which mandates about $489 billion in ten-year savings (not counting reduced war costs, which will make for substantial additional savings over that period too). The cuts in forces and programs may not be large enough to achieve the targets - leaving aside the possibility of sequestration, which I believe would go way too far in terms of making further cuts.
In my own recent research on the subject (spelled out in my book The Wounded Giant), in seeking cuts of similar size I felt it necessary to cut active-duty ground forces by 50,000 more personnel than the president now proposes. Rather than simply postpone a few major procurement programs, I suggested major changes to the F35 fighter plane program and Littoral Combat Ship among others, along with a somewhat smaller Navy and less expensive nuclear force posture. I also offered somewhat steeper changes to military healthcare programs, and dramatic reform of military commissaries and exchanges.
What explains the arithmetic problem? My calculations, based largely on Congressional Budget Office methodologies that I learned when working there two decades ago, were perhaps more conservative than the Pentagon’s. While I hardly speak for CBO today, the budget office is typically more pessimistic about costs than is the Department of Defense.
The CBO assumes that weapons will grow in expense more than currently planned, just as they typically have in the past, for example. So its “baseline” about what current plans, programs, and forces will cost in the future is higher than DoD’s in most cases. The difference can be as much as several hundred billion dollars over a decade-long period. To remain under a given budget ceiling in the future, therefore, more cuts in people, programs, and forces would be needed.
I do not favor cutting DoD to sequestration levels or near-sequestration levels. But in order to just achieve what has been promised by way of smaller spending reductions requires deeper changes. President Obama has gotten us about two-thirds of the way to where we are trying to go, but more still needs to be done - and some deeper economies need to be identified.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.