Cutting the Defense Budget
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
This morning in an op-ed in the Washington Post Brookings Institution fellow Michael O’Hanlon cautions the Obama Administration against making injudicious reductions in the defense budget:
After three months of very impressive decisions regarding national security, President Obama made perhaps his first significant mistake. It concerns the defense budget, where his plans are insufficient to support the national security establishment over the next five years. Thankfully, this mistake can be fixed before it causes big harm — either by Congress this year or the administration itself next year.
He continues by articulating a principle which I think would make an interesting debate topic: that for the Defense Department to merely tread water, as he puts it, the real military budget must grow by 2% per year.
He then lists the primary components of the defense budget: personnel, operations and maintenance, procurement, and R&D. Historically, procurement and R&D have been the most attractive targets for administrations interested in cutting the defense budget. Unfortunately, that’s not where the meat is. The meat is in personnel and operations and maintenance. So, for example, in the FY 2009 budget where procurement and R&D account for about $180 billion, personnel and operations and maintenance acccount for more than half again that amount at $300 billion.
Furthermore, while it’s reasonable to debate whether we need tanks or fighter aircraft to maintain our security, once we’ve decided that we do need them, we need to have companies that manufacture them and to have companies that manufacture them we’ve got to buy them. Or evaluate the security implications of purchasing them from foreign suppliers.
I’m not arguing that we need to maintain arbalests and flintlocks in our military arsenal (although I’m sure that if a Congressman has an arbalest manufacturer in his district he will argue persuasively that arbalests are vital to our continued security). I merely think that we need to maintain a grasp on the realities of maintaining a 21st century military.
In order to cut personnel and operations and maintenance we’ve got to do less, have fewer or smaller permanent overseas bases, and smaller standing forces. Anything else is irresponsible. If the Obama Administration genuinely wants to reduce our military budget, that’s what it’s got to do and it’s got to produce a plan that reduces our commitments, advocates for it, follows through with the plan, and be willing to take the political heat for it if any.
I suspect that the Obama Administration will learn as its predecessors have that cutting the military budget is much less practical than it appears when you’re on the outside looking in, is much harder, and is significantly more politically painful than it has realized.
Putting all of this together, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that real defense spending would have to be about 10 percent greater than today over roughly the next decade to afford what is on the Pentagon’s books. The CBO has not recalculated in light of Gates’s plans, but a rough estimate suggests the need for 7 to 8 percent higher spending for an average year in the future. That is another way of saying that we need roughly 2 percent real growth per year, while Obama offers zero. By 2014, this amounts to a difference of about $50 billion in the annual budget, and a cumulative five-year discrepancy of about $150 billion. Once increased, defense spending would still decline as a fraction of gross domestic product, but not as much as is currently forecast. The plan will have to change. The question is whether we do it now or do it later.