US Defense Spending Set for Downward Course 

Although U.S. military spending will reach an all-time high next year, the Pentagon budget almost certainly faces steady cuts over the medium to long term, mainly as a result of increasing pressure to reduce the ballooning national debt, according to a growing consensus among defense experts.

And while Pentagon chief Robert Gates is taking pre-emptive action by promising to save 100 billion dollars over the next five years by reducing bureaucratic duplication and waste, including the number of flag officers, and reliance on private contractors, and canceling the "bells and whistles" on some big-ticket weapons systems, some analysts believe bigger cuts are inevitable. 

In a recent and widely noted talk at a conference here earlier this month entitled "Doing More With Less", Todd Harrison of the non-partisan think tank, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, predicted that the military budget could decline by an average of three to four percent a year beginning after the 2012 presidential elections, if not next year. 

The Pentagon’s budget could fall from the 739 billion dollars that Congress is expected to approve for 2011 to the equivalent of 450 billion dollars by as early as 2020, according to Harrison, whose talk was covered in detail by the influential Defense News weekly. 

With so much money at stake, defense contractors, some of which have already announced plans to lay off thousands of workers around the country, have been beefing up their lobbying operations in Washington. 

Boeing, for example, boosted its lobbying expenditures to nine million dollars during the first half of 2010, two million dollars more than it spent during the same period last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Northrop Grumman matched that total, increasing its spending by three million dollars. 

At some 693 billion dollars, the 2010 U.S. defense budget has more than doubled over the past decade, rising an average of six percent a year over that period. It currently accounts for nearly half of all military spending worldwide, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). 

At the same time, however, the national debt has mushroomed to some 13 trillion dollars, while the federal deficit – estimated at around 1.5 trillion dollars this year – currently exceeds 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), the highest level since the end of World War II. 

Until now, the Pentagon has been exempt from growing public pressure to cut the deficit; indeed, Congress is poised to approve what amounts to a 2.4 percent increase in military spending in 2011. 

But that exemption may not last much longer, as even Republicans, particularly those identified with the more-libertarian elements of the populist Tea Party movement, have begun questioning whether the country can afford the financial burden, especially at a time when Washington’s closest NATO allies are themselves making major cutbacks in their defense budgets. 

"Members of Congress from both parties are increasingly eyeing the defense budget as a place to reduce spending and bring down the federal deficit, a sign that such spending is no longer sacrosanct, as it has been for nine years," according to John Donnelly, a veteran defense specialist at Congressional Quarterly

Indeed, the bipartisan nature of the new attitude was underlined in July when Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul, a Tea Party favorite, co-authored a column entitled "Why We Must Reduce Military Spending" on the widely read Huffington Post website with liberal Democrat Rep. Barney Frank. It called for cutting Pentagon spending by one trillion dollars over the next 10 years, both by "eliminating certain Cold War weapons and scaling back our commitments overseas." 

Top Pentagon officials, led by Gates — himself a long-time Republican – have themselves acknowledged the need for cuts, although not nearly at the level suggested by Paul and Frank. 

In a major policy address last May, Gates declared that the post-9/11 "gusher" in defense spending "has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time."

"We can’t have a strong military if we have a weak economy," Gates told reporters, a theme that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, picked up last month when he warned that "the most significant threat to our national security is the debt." 

It was in that context that Gates, who last year cancelled several major weapons systems, laid out his five-year plan to save 100 billion dollars. At the same time, however, he warned against major cuts, noting that his "greatest fear is that in economic tough times… people will see the defense budget as a place to solve the nation’s deficit problems." 

At the same time, however, Pentagon officials have insisted that defense spending should continue to grow in real terms, albeit at a significantly slower rate – at least one percent a year — than during the past decade. 

"Robert Gates’s main mission is not to cut the Pentagon budget, but to save it," William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative of the New America Foundation (NAF), told IPS. "His various changes are all being done in the service of protecting his department from reduction in its overall budget." 

"He may succeed in the short term, but, as concerns about federal deficit continue to grow, the Pentagon budget will inevitably go down in real terms, as it should when it is at its highest levels since World War II," he added. 

"The fiscal crisis is real; it poses serious, long-term threats to America’s well-being and global position; and the only solution …is for all parts of federal spending and revenues to be on the table, including defense," wrote Gordon Adams, a top national-security expert in President Bill Clinton’s budget office, in a colloquium on the National Journal‘s website. 

The Obama administration and lawmakers are clearly hoping that savings gained by the U.S. drawdown in Iraq, to be followed, beginning in July 2011, by a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan will go a long way toward reducing the defense budget to more manageable levels. The Pentagon is spending 65 billion dollars on Iraq and around 100 dollars on Afghanistan this year. 

But even in what most analysts consider the highly unlikely event – especially given pressure on Obama by the military brass to delay or slow his withdrawal plans in Afghanistan — those costs can be reduced to near zero over the next five years, the military budget will remain substantially higher in real terms than it was after previous wars, including the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. 

If, moreover, the economy fails to generate growth rates sustained during the go-go 1990s – another highly unlikely prospect given the depth of the recession from which it has only just begun to recover — the pressure for additional cuts is certain to intensify, no matter which party controls Congress or the White House. 

How those cuts will be achieved is certain to have major geo-strategic, as well as financial and fiscal, consequences not just for the U.S., but also for a host of countries, particularly in Eurasia, that have long relied on its military dominance. 

There has been "the assumption that the United States is still the world’s hegemon, duty-bound to be prepared to fight everyone, everywhere if imperial interests require it," wrote ret. Col. Patrick Lang, a former top Defense Intelligence Agency official, in the National Journal‘s colloquium. "How can responsible, grown-up people who understand our economic position think that has anything to do with reality?"

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.