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.

O’Hanlon concludes:

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.

FILED UNDER: National Security
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. odograph says:

    There is a good graphic in the NYT today, about where the money went. It’s captured pretty well in this short post by Barry Ritholtz.

    FWIW, I don’t think we can ever look for “savings” in defense until we can get out from under this war/wars. Those who endorsed “permanent war” a few years ago (I worked with some who, when I said “you are talking multi-generational war” said in reply “yes”), never really tied it to “permanent tax cuts.”

  2. markm says:

    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.

    As I see it thus far, the above bold doesn’t fit his M.O.. He comes off to me as the guy that goes for the headline “XXX Billion cut from budget” first, then muddles through the other part(s). It’s early yet though.

  3. odograph says:

    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.

    As I see it thus far, the above bold doesn’t fit his M.O.. He comes off to me as the guy that goes for the headline “XXX Billion cut from budget” first, then muddles through the other part(s). It’s early yet though.

    Where is the Peace movement? Anyone see one?

    (It is possible that Obama is playing this as a slower chess game, building a re-internationalized foreign policy, in which case peace and reduced defense spending come later.)

  4. Steve Hynd says:

    Hang on, though, Dave. Obama’s budget includes a higher defense spend, not cuts. O’Hanlon even admits this, saying Obama’s defense budget is just “treading water”:

    The administration is hardly slashing funds for defense; it is simply adopting a policy of zero real growth in the “base budget” (the part that does not include war costs, which are too unpredictable to include in this analysis). Specifically, the base budget is to grow 2 percent a year over the next five years.

    What O’Hanlon objects to isn’t defense cuts, but a lack of defense spending rises on things other than the actual wars the US is already involved in.

    Regards, Steve

  5. markm says:

    Where is the Peace movement? Anyone see one?

    You can’t force peace upon two (or more) groups that don’t like or agree each other. Besides, I think we’ve seen enough earthy harry hippie breasts to last us.

  6. markm says:

    edit: “with each other”.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Steve Hynd:

    O’Hanlon is arguing that failing to increase the defense budget by a real 2% per year is an operational cut. As I noted in the body of the post, it would make an interesting debate topic.

    odograph:

    The graphic from the NYT isn’t relevant to this post although I’m composing a post over at my place to discuss it. We’re not going to reduce our military budget to zero and even if we did it still wouldn’t balance the budget. Realistically, I think that defense budget must be trimmed to suit our actual defense requirements and that much of that should come in the form of force reduction and commensurate reduction in commitments. If anybody believes that we can balance the budget via defense cuts, they’re dreaming.

  8. odograph says:

    Where is the Peace movement? Anyone see one?

    You can’t force peace upon two (or more) groups that don’t like or agree each other. Besides, I think we’ve seen enough earthy harry hippie breasts to last us.

    Well, if we are going to buy into that (literally), there isn’t much point talking about reductions in defense spending.

    Dave managed to write a fairly long and quite well-thought defense piece, but he didn’t actually use the word “war” once. That might be something to step back and think about, on the meta level.

  9. odograph says:

    The graphic from the NYT isn’t relevant to this post although I’m composing a post over at my place to discuss it. We’re not going to reduce our military budget to zero and even if we did it still wouldn’t balance the budget. Realistically, I think that defense budget must be trimmed to suit our actual defense requirements and that much of that should come in the form of force reduction and commensurate reduction in commitments. If anybody believes that we can balance the budget via defense cuts, they’re dreaming.

    I’m going to say it is relevant, because an unfunded war is integral both to “defense spending” and to debt and deficit going forward.

  10. Mark says:

    why should we cut the largest part? Because it’s large? Why not cut R&D?

    personally I’d like to see a new tax put in place to pay for all operations in iraq and afghanistan. Cut R&D by 30 percent and pay for each of those operations with new funds. Then divert some of that savings to troop pay.

    Or heck, just freeze growth. So you essentially cut defense by 2 percent a year, still implement the tax, and again, use some of that savings to increase pay.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    R&D accounts for roughly $80 billion in the FY09 budget. Eliminating it completely would result in about a 16% reduction with serious implications as I noted it above. Reducing it by a third gives you a five percent reduction, just $27 billion. That’s not a serious reduction.

    And, yes, you’re better off starting by cutting the largest part rather than the smallest. That’s fundamental optimization. When you want to speed up a process, you improve the speed of the step in the process that takes the most time. When you want to cost reduce something, start with the components that make up most of the cost.

  12. sam says:

    Why not cut R&D?

    I dunno about that when cool stuff like this is coming off the drawing board.

  13. Fog says:

    I would like to hear someone in a position of authority explain to me why we need to spend as much money on defense as the rest of the world put together. And then explain to me why it’s a good (or bad) investment. What’s the mission, really?

  14. Mark says:

    “Reducing it by a third gives you a five percent reduction, just $27 billion. That’s not a serious reduction”

    in conjunction with your point about optimization (setting aside that 27billion is not a serious reduction), if I have 100 percent of a machine and I really utilize on a daily basis 70 percent of it. Which parts would I look to remove if I had to sell some to get some cash?

    You’re right in that is makes sense to cut a percentage of the larger parts because it is more effective at a smaller percentage but, if those larger parts give us more bang for our buck and are better suited to deal with the threats of today (more boots on the ground than space age ships and jets) why start there for cuts?

    makes sense to cut back on the “future weapons”, even if just for a while, than look to cut the parts that are working the hardest right now.

    And what about that tax idea? 😉

  15. Fog, because we’re doing the job non-Americans won’t do protecting world? Is this is a trick question? Why do you think so much of the developed world is able to not spend so much on defense? If you think preparing for war is expensive, you’ll really love the cost of actual wars that come from not preparing for them.

    Have Netflix send a copy of High Noon over.

  16. sam says:

    [B]ecause we’re doing the job non-Americans won’t do protecting world?

    Exactly, Charles, but then the question is, Should we be doing the job? I think of necessity the answer is “Yes,” but I’d like to see someone in power lay out the reasons in a compelling fashion for the nation at large.

  17. Fog says:

    I was hoping someone would say more about “reducing our commitments.” That would be a very important discussion.
    And I saw “Red Dawn,” too. It didn’t teach me anything about our defense commitments, either.

  18. odograph says:

    [B]ecause we’re doing the job non-Americans won’t do protecting world?

    I’m not sure that is an answer to the question:

    explain to me why we need to spend as much money on defense as the rest of the world put together

    If we don’t have big-spending foes, why does big-spending solve our problems?

  19. Rob says:

    From 1989-1992, there was a lot of talk of a “peace dividend”, and the US military was vastly reduced in size. Every other NATO country did the same thing.

    Peace hasn’t broken out, and I think the last 20 years have shown that if the US doesn’t act outside its borders to maintain order, if not peace, no one else will take sufficient action to do it either.

    History has also shown us, from the Barbary pirates to today, that only the US military coupled with US political will, can be relied upon to look out for US interests and the safety of US citizens throughout the world.

    Now, how much are we willing to pay to maintain that ability?

  20. odograph says:

    Rob, I can agree with that in general, and then ask in brass tacks if that equals “major weapons programs” or for that matter “major wars.”

    We just solved a pirate problem, with a few well trained riflemen.

    Really, my position is that other people’s governments are other people’s responsibility. They only deserve our interest when they foolishly make themselves so (as when Afghanistan decided backing Bin Laden was a good play).

    As soon as we solve our problem we should leave them to sort out their government.

  21. We just solved a pirate problem, with a few well trained riflemen.

    You are embarrassing yourself with an answer like that. Do you have any idea what it took to get those riflemen into a position to do what they were trained to do to, in your words, solve a pirate problem? Do you think you can do that without the worldwide assets necessary to project force the United States maintains now?

    Really, my position is that other people’s governments are other people’s responsibility.

    Sounds like some prime Pat Buchanan philosophy there.

  22. One more thing,

    If we don’t have big-spending foes, why does big-spending solve our problems?

    I prefer to have superior forces supplied with superior weapons and superior training when it comes to defense, not merely as much as the other guy has.

  23. odograph says:

    We just solved a pirate problem, with a few well trained riflemen.

    You are embarrassing yourself with an answer like that. Do you have any idea what it took to get those riflemen into a position to do what they were trained to do to, in your words, solve a pirate problem? Do you think you can do that without the worldwide assets necessary to project force the United States maintains now?

    I was aware that they were on a ship when I wrote it, but I hoped that you would get what they were not on … a strategic nuclear submarine, or a b2 bomber.

    I prefer to have superior forces supplied with superior weapons and superior training when it comes to defense, not merely as much as the other guy has.

    So basically you are making the same old argument, that if I want to be “safe” you need a blank check?

    Come on, I’m asking what is necessary and you are making the lazy (and ridiculous) argument that it is whatever the military-industrial complex asks for.

    I just scanned back over this thread Charles, and looked for you to be setting any limits at all. I see none. Instead I see “protecting [the] world” .. what used to be called “world policeman” when Democrats where doing it.

  24. odograph says:

    Consider the Predator, a hopelessly expensive way to blow up other people’s houses on the other side of the world. Is there any way to show that actually makes me safer?

    It’s all based on trust in secret actions, that the moral mathematics of X guilty and Y innocent killed will blow back, 20 years from now, in our favor.

  25. Brett says:

    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.

    This is a really good point, Dave. One of the things I remember reading in a news article a while back was that the current amount of F-22s, plus the amount on the production line (which is now almost negligible), weren’t enough to make it profitable for the manufacturer to keep the production lines open for the various spare parts they need.

    What that means is that instead of having the parts made, a significant number of the planes will probably need to be cannibalized at some point to keep the rest in flight. Happy hunting.

    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.

    That’s tough to do. For one thing, neither party really has a strong commitment to avoiding conventional and unconventional military operations if at all possible. The Republicans generally support the war on terror, and having a military that can do “flexible response” (meaning that it can use a certain level of military force to match a certain level of situation); the Democrats, while more skeptical of getting into wars, generally want to have a force that can do lots of nice peacekeeping operations, which drives up personnel, maintenance, and operations costs.

    You’d basically need a commitment on the part of the US government to not deploy its own military forces short of anything other than an all-out regional and/or global war in an area of interest, like if the Norks went crazy and attacked South Korea (some exceptions might be things like carrier patrols in East Asia, and so forth). I’m guessing that you’d have to attach that to a policy of relying heavily on regional partners in a specific arena up to the point where the US is forced to intervene. This is more difficult than it sounds – take the Middle East, for example, where Israel would probably be our regional partner.

    I would like to hear someone in a position of authority explain to me why we need to spend as much money on defense as the rest of the world put together. And then explain to me why it’s a good (or bad) investment. What’s the mission, really?

    The mission, basically, is to secure and promote American interests, while preventing the rise of major regional conflicts that could affect or harm American interests. “Offshore balancing” and all that.

    Looking at the actual amount of spending is putting the cart before the horse – you need to look at US commitments first, then decide if they are worth spending the money to do them. The US is the largest economy in the world (representing 25-30% of the World GDP), and we have worldwide interests that affect the livelihoods and security of American citizens (for example, after Canada, our second largest trading partner is China – and after Canada and Mexico, Saudi Arabia is the third-largest source of our oil). You have to spend money to protect your interests there, and the US is better positioned than almost anyone to spend that kind of money.

    Why do you think so much of the developed world is able to not spend so much on defense?

    There are definitely a couple of cases where other countries’ defense budgets would be much higher without the implicit and explicit protection guarantee from the US military. Just look at Europe, where defense spending averages something like 1% of the budget (versus 5% in the US). Japan might be another example, although they are a high spender on defense (although not as high in proportion to their budget as the US) – their spending would almost certainly rise drastically in the wake of US drawback, particularly in areas like the Navy. Same with Australia, I think.

    You are embarrassing yourself with an answer like that. Do you have any idea what it took to get those riflemen into a position to do what they were trained to do to, in your words, solve a pirate problem?

    Good point. People tend to under-estimate what it takes to have what the US more or less has right now – worldwide force projection capabilities. This is one of the reasons why the Chinese are still significantly weaker in a military sense compared to us – they have weak force projection, a relatively weak navy in most areas, and lack the infrastructure to do force projection on anything like the scale of the US.

    Consider the Predator, a hopelessly expensive way to blow up other people’s houses on the other side of the world. Is there any way to show that actually makes me safer?

    It’s a more effective way for bombing and surveillance of targets – and has the advantage of not risking a pilot’s life.

  26. odograph says:

    Brett, did you set any limits to spending there?

    Or is it “since we need to be off Somalia, we’ll spend arbitrary amounts?”

    Really you guys, we have been off Somalia for 100 years. That isn’t where the money, the big bucks, goes.

  27. I was aware that they were on a ship when I wrote it, but I hoped that you would get what they were not on … a strategic nuclear submarine, or a b2 bomber.

    Do you think there is just one ship there? And that that ship doesn’t have a very long logistics chain? And how do you think the riflemen got from wherever in the world they were to exactly there very, very quickly? You think you just charter a commercial jet to drop these guys into theater? You don’t know how these riflemen got there. As it happens I do but to paraphrase Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that. Meanwhile you continue to embarrasss yourself about things you really don’t seem to know very much about.

    So basically you are making the same old argument, that if I want to be “safe” you need a blank check?

    Do you always argue with “either agree with me or you must hold whatever extremist position I choose to give you?” I believe this article started out claiming that a 2% annual increase was necessary to maintain the military we have today. Where have I called for anything greater than this, much less a blank check for the military-industrial complex?

    I just scanned back over this thread Charles, and looked for you to be setting any limits at all. I see none. Instead I see “protecting [the] world” .. what used to be called “world policeman” when Democrats where doing it.

    I didn’t know it was a requirement for me to read your mind in advance and come up with a limit to defense spending when I was responding to someone else’s post regarding an issue that was something other than what the annual increase in the defense budget needs to be. Anyway, if you can, find an instance where I complained about being the “world’s policeman” when Democrats where doing it. Try not to assign to me every opinion ever expressed by anyone who has disagreed with you.

    Strawmen, false dichotomies, generalization, misattribution, you’ve really got quite a repertoire there.

  28. odograph says:

    This is even scarier, charles:

    Anyway, if you can, find an instance where I complained about being the “world’s policeman” when Democrats where doing it.

    I do actually want somone who complains about us being world policeman, then and now. I want someone who sets limits.

    I believe this article started out claiming that a 2% annual increase was necessary to maintain the military we have today. Where have I called for anything greater than this, much less a blank check for the military-industrial complex?

    I never got the logic of that, as I say above, because “the military we have today” is fighting 1-2 unfunded wars … part of that “world policeman” thing.

  29. An Interested Party says:

    Fog, because we’re doing the job non-Americans won’t do protecting world?

    Ohhhh…so now it is our responsibility to protect the whole world? Someone please tell me where that responsibility is written into the Constitution…

  30. The Strategic MC says:

    “Consider the Predator, a hopelessly expensive way to blow up other people’s houses on the other side of the world. Is there any way to show that actually makes me safer?”

    Now, if the only thing that the Predator did was fly strike missions (“blow up other people’s houses”) I might concede the point.

    What the Predator actually does on most missions, provide commanders with persistent and relatively inexpensive (no at-risk aircrew, very fuel efficient) ISR, is conducted in a pretty cost efficient manner. Time-sensitive targeting and strike (when armed with Hellfires) is an added bonus.

    The collateral damage problem is not inherent to the Predator per se, it is inherent to the strike mission area to which the Predators are tasked.

  31. Brett says:

    Brett, did you set any limits to spending there?

    Sure. You look at the possible commitment, then decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not it is worthwhile to spend the money to engage.

  32. odograph says:

    Brett’s answer kind of anticipates my answer to MC.

    I like the tech of the Predator, etc., but look at where it is being deployed: to one of the most remorte and poorest regions in the world. These are people who barely have two goats to rub together, on the other side of the world. Do we need a hundred billion dollar war machine directed at them? And is the situation so desperate that a remote operator must take the instant decision and risk of killing another wedding party?

    Something has gone off the rails here.

  33. The Strategic MC says:

    If you are truly interested in the highest Probability of Kill, minimal collateral damage, Man-In-The-Loop targeting and engagement, you put troops on the ground. Unfortunately, you then risk casualties and have to provide additional support, to include on-call CAS and airborne insertion and extraction. Your potential cost per mission in both dollar and political terms is extremely high relative to using a UAV.

    For obvious reasons, we can’t do troops with any regularity in Pakistan. Predator is the best solution to the problem at hand, given the concerns and constraints under which the military operates.

    Don’t forget that the Predator is not a purpose designed strike platform; it does extremely cost-effective ISR, the mission for which it was designed and is principally employed.

    “…(I)s the situation so desperate that a remote operator must take the instant decision and risk of killing another wedding party?”

    The same mistake can be, and has been, made by pilots in manned aircraft. Your argument, I think, is really with the intel and targeting support which goes into the preparation of the strike missions.

  34. The Strategic MC says:

    “Do we need a hundred billion dollar war machine directed at them?”

    If you make the decision to take on the AfPak mission (and we have), the answer is yes.

    Our way of war entails the use of force-multiplier technologies and well-trained and compensated troops, the combination of which enables us to achieve very favorable kill-ratios (a critical metric in war) and eliminates the need for a large standing conscripted military.

    If the determination is made that the AfPak “prize” is not worth the cost, I don’t have a major problem with that. I just don’t want to hear the full-throated whining that will most certainly emanate from the “international community” when we leave the region to it’s destiny.

  35. Brett says:

    I just don’t want to hear the full-throated whining that will most certainly emanate from the “international community” when we leave the region to it’s destiny.

    Same here. My guess is that many of the people in said “community” who are now criticizing the US mission there, will suddenly be shitting bricks when the Taliban gets into power if we ever decide to pack up and leave early.