Lawrence Korb writes:
In Congressional testimony over the past week, several high ranking military officers, led by Army General Martin Dempsey, the nominee to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have warned about the dire national security consequences that could occur if the defense budget is cut by more than a token amount. Their comments have been reinforced by several Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee. But there are at least five reasons why the defense budget can and should be cut substantially without undo risk.
First, in real or inflation adjusted dollars, it is higher than at any time since World War II, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the height of the Reagan buildup. The Korean War peak was $485 billion in FY 1952, Vietnam $409 billion in FY 1968, and the Reagan buildup $546 billion in FY 1985. The baseline defense budget for FY2012 is $585 billion. If one adds in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the total defense budget for the upcoming fiscal year rises to about $700 billion.
Second, the baseline defense budget has risen in real terms for 13 consecutive years, which is unprecedented in American history. The Korean and Vietnam buildups lasted three years and the Reagan buildup but four. Since FY 1998, the baseline budget has risen from $360 billion to $585 billion or 63 percent. Moreover, the military snuck many items that had nothing to do with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into the $1.3 trillion war supplemental budgets, for example the F-22 and missile defense.
Third, despite the gusher of defense spending, the military in many ways is no better off than it was 13 years ago. In fact, it may be worse. Its equipment is older, and its forces are training less. This condition is the result of what Admiral Mullen, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the failure to make hard choices. As a result, the Pentagon spent $46 billion on weapon systems it had to terminate and the cost overruns on systems it is currently buying went up by $400 billion. Finally, when pressed, the military leaders themselves have identified nearly $200 billion in savings that could be achieved in the FY 2012-2016 time frame if they operated more efficiently.
Fourth, the military budget must play a role in dealing with what Admiral Mullen calls the greatest threat to our national security, the burgeoning federal deficit which now totals $14.3 trillion. Defense spending now consumes more than half of the total discretionary budget, more than 20 percent of the total budget, up from 16 percent a decade ago, and is at the same level as Social Security and Medicare, which are funded by trust funds.
Fifth, the US is not dealing with an existential threat like we did in the Cold War.
Dempsey and his fellow officers say that cutting the baseline or non-war defense budget by $100 a year billion or by $1 trillion over the next decade will jeopardize our security. Hardly. A $100 billion cut will leave the Pentagon with a baseline defense budget of $480 billion. During the Cold War, the defense budget averaged $450 billion in today’s dollars. And even Secretary Gates admitted we do not need to go back to Cold War levels of defense spending.