The Myth of Military Budget Cuts

Last week, President Obama unveiled what is being touted as a new defense strategy intended to drive reductions in the defense budget (the first time a president held a press conference at the Pentagon). According to the president:

As I made clear in Australia, we will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region. We’re going to continue investing in our critical partnerships and alliances, including NATO, which has demonstrated time and again – most recently in Libya – that it’s a force multiplier. We will stay vigilant, especially in the Middle East.

Although Obama touts an “end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints,” “smaller conventional ground forces,” and getting rid of “outdated Cold War-era systems,” it still sounds like we will be defending the entire world (Asia, NATO [i.e., Europe], and the Middle East certainly encompass most of the world). And aside from “budget reductions,” this is not too unlike the Bush administration’s record.

The results of the defense review ordered by the president are outlined in Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense. This document makes clear that we still have an “everywhere at once” defense strategy (maybe the White House and Pentagon are big fans of the Plimsouls):

U.S. forces will be capable of deterring and defeating aggression by any potential adversary.… As a nation with important interests in multiple regions, our forces must be capable of deterring and defeating aggression by an opportunistic adversary in one region even when our forces are committed to a large-scale operation elsewhere.

Nowhere does the above say anything about deterring and defeating direct military threats against the United States as a country. Instead, it’s about “aggression by any potential adversary” and “interests in multiple regions.”

Indeed, only one of the primary missions of the U.S. armed forces listed (all seemingly to protect vast U.S. national interests rather than provide for U.S. national security) has anything to do with directly defending America (two at most if you include an effective nuclear deterrent):

  • Counter terrorism and irregular warfare

  • Deter and defeat aggression

  • Project power despite anti-access/area- denial challenge

  • Counter weapons of mass destruction

  • Operate effectively in cyberspace and space

  • Maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent

  • Defend the homeland and provide support to civil authorities

  • Provide a stabilizing presence

  • Conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations

  • Conduct humanitarian, disaster relief, and other operations

The problem is that if the myriad of missions for the Department of Defense (DoD) aren’t reduced, it’s impossible to make any meaningful reductions in defense spending. Sure, you can (and should) go after expensive and unnecessary weapon systems. However, many of those already have significant sunk costs, and the result of cutting back on production is that we end up with ubër expensive per unit weapons (not that this should be a rationale for not spending more money on unneeded weapons). For example, the cost of the F-22 Raptor (the replacement for the aging F-15 Eagle, still the most capable air-superiority fighter relative to the rest of the world’s air forces) is more than $200 million each. Another big-ticket weapon system is the F-35 Lightning, which is the poster child for “too big to fail” weapon systems. The Pentagon intends to buy 2,443 aircraft for $382 billion, and when you include projected operations and maintenance costs, the total bill will likely be over $1 trillion

But the majority of military spending is in the military personnel and operation-and-maintenance accounts, which are more directly correlated to a defense strategy predicated on being able to respond everywhere in the world to every potential act of aggression (even if it’s not aggression directly against the United States). For example, the FY 2012 DoD base budget is $544.7 billion [.pdf] (the total budget is $662 billion when you include funding for overseas contingency operations such as Afghanistan and, until recently, Iraq). Military personnel is $148.3 billion and operation and maintenance is another $205.3 billion — that’s $353.6 billion total, or 65% of the budget (procurement, i.e., buying new weapons, is “only” $113 billion, or 21% of the budget).

So if you want to make a real dent in the defense budget, you have to reduce military personnel and the operation and maintenance associated with all the equipment for those personnel. And the only way to do that is to reduce the size of the military and its footprint around the world. Even before 9/11 and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States had more than 243,000 troops deployed in foreign countries — roughly 17% of the total force (about 1.4 million). If that ratio is applied to current spending for military personnel and operation and maintenance, that’s $61.3 billion, or 11% of the baseline budget. So just pulling back from overseas deployments would be an easy way to spend at least 10% less. But the potential cost-reduction is actually even more than that because of the need for twice as many troops to be able to rotate deployments abroad. Before 9/11, the cost of a worldwide U.S. military presence was over 700,000 U.S. soldiers and sailors along with their associated force structure. If the troops to maintain those deployments were no longer needed, the reduction in current spending could be as much as $180 billion, or more than 30% of the baseline budget.

But even though President Obama talks about a smaller defense budget, the likely result will be the opposite. In fact, the president admits as much: “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.” Moreover, defense spending will continue “to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined.”

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.