Defense Budget Cuts

Stephanie Guttman, author of something called The Kinder, Gentler Military, takes to NRO to tell us how easy it is to cut the Defense budget. She inadvertently does just the opposite.

Stephanie Guttman, author of something called The Kinder, Gentler Military, takes to NRO to tell us how easy it is to cut the Defense budget.  She inadvertently does just the opposite.

She writes, “I’m not a line-by-line expert on the military budget, but common sense says there’s a nice layer of lard that can be pared before we hit muscle and bone.”  Fair enough.  Her examples?

● “How about the thousands of troops in Germany and the UK?”

How about ’em? Presumably, Guttman isn’t proposing we do away with them — we’re stretched pretty thin as it is — merely moving them home.

They’re forward-deployed much nearer likely venues for conflict than they would be at, say, Fort Hood. They’re only marginally more expensive overseas and more than make up for that by the powerful signal their presence sends to our NATO allies.

● “All-Army Sports. We have a war going on. We don’t need professional sports teams.” [Did you know that the Army fields its own sports teams? I didn’t, but here’s their website.]

● “The US Army Soldier Show. Yes, it was founded by Irving Berlin, but we need Soldiers in our warfighting units, not tap dancing around the world (literally.)” [Their website. He is not talking about the hallowed USO Shows. Those are a private venture.]

These things, military bands, the various demonstration teams (the Black Knights parachute team, the Blue Angels flight team, and the like) do indeed seem like low-hanging fruit. But they’re apparently a very powerful recruiting tool and more than pay for themselves in that arena.

● “The Commander of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. The PX system does not need a General Officer in command. Hire a competent executive away from Wal-Mart, Sears, or JCPenneys and let him go to town.” [While we’re at it, do we really need expensively-trained servicemen and women manning the base supermarkets and ship’s stores anyway? Isn’t this a job that we might consider privatizing?]

AAFES employs precisely two flag officers: a major (2-star) general  and a brigadier (1-star) general. They oversee “3,100 facilities worldwide, in more than 30 countries, five U.S. territories and 50 states. AAFES operates some 181 main stores and more than 1,000 fast-food restaurants, such as Taco Bell, Burger King, Popeyes and Cinnabon.” And they account for $9.8 billion in sales.

A two-star makes around $175,000 a year.  You really think you’re going to find a civilian executive to manage that operation more cheaply?

And the checkout counters — indeed, the entire store operation — is civilian run, largely by wifes and husbands of service members. The notable exception is those stores being run aboard naval vessels at sea, who are staffed by very low ranking sailors. There are, shall we say, good reasons for that.

Speaking of wasting trained personnel, that same retired Army man recommends taking a look at “the number of aides-de-camp to General Officers who have that all important duty of holding hats, carrying briefcases, and basically being personal servants. Since most of the servants are commissioned officers, if the duties are so important, then assign them to some wounded enlisted soldiers who are not capable of combat duties.”

Aides-de-camp are promising officers who shadow general officers to learn. They’re not personal servants but, depending on the rank and billet of the general, some combination of executive assistant and chief of staff. It’s an invaluable job that yields tremendous benefits for both the general and the aide.  Oh, and there are only 230 generals in the entire Army, 208 in the Air Force, and 60 in the Marine Corps. The Navy is capped at 216 admirals.

If we’re looking to cut the budget, by the way, the issue isn’t too many aides but too many general and flag officers! Indeed, the Secretary of Defense is looking to make steep cuts.  (Although there are some good counterarguments, notably the need for stars on ones shoulders in quasi-diplomatic assignments, which appear to be the norm for the foreseeable future.)

There are doubtless some efficiencies to be gained by further consolidating bases and administrative functions, especially those service support functions that serve all the service branches. For example, there has been talk for years of combining AAFES and the Navy Exchange Service and yet it hasn’t happened.

But most of the low hanging fruit has been plucked at this point.  The only way to achieve real savings is to cut back on the operational tempo. If we expect our military to be able to deploy anywhere, any time and stay for years on end performing counterinsurgency or stability operations, then we’re going to have to expect to continue pouring absurd amounts of money into Defense.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Moosebreath says:

    Is the lack of title here deliberate (as in, she’s not really saying anything, so neither do you have to)?

  2. ponce says:

    I think the best way to cut the defense budget would be to set the total amount we’re willing to spend and go from there.

    Personnel, equipment and operations spending are just to closely tied together to hack back just one of them.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Moosebreath: Just a glitch in creating the post.

    Ponce: I think we should look at what we want to accomplish and then price it out. Lately, we haven’t been willing to say No to anything.

  4. ponce says:

    “I think we should look at what we want to accomplish and then price it out. Lately, we haven’t been willing to say No to anything.”

    Will we always get to choose that, though?

    How about we decide what we should be prepared for?

  5. jwest says:

    If we could return to the concept of actual war, as opposed to the civilian casualty-free tap dance society insists on, the defense budget could be cut in half.

    By placing the responsibility of government actions on the people of a country, they could be assured that if they didn’t moderate the actions of their leaders, their country (and themselves) could face total obliteration.

    On the cost side, it is far cheaper to pound an enemy into the Stone Age than it is to surgically inflict damage. Morally, it’s better to reintroduce the horrors of real war so that it once again becomes something to be avoided.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    It’s annoying to me that when we should already be far into this process people are still so clueless about the magnitude of the problem. Just as we are not going to balance the budget by cutting foreign aid, we’re not going to cut the military budget with painless minor items. The Blue Angels? They’re the problem?

    We’re taking on more missions, fighting more wars than we have men and materiel for. Apparently it’s gone unnoticed but fighting wars in kind of expensive. Just the gas bill is staggering. Let alone such minor items as pay, benefits, medical care, equipment, recruitment, training.

    I just want to say that we gas on about the legacy of Reagan, this should be part of it; magical thinking and reductio ad anecdotum. We’re not at the “no more aides” level, we’re at base closing, fewer carrier groups, shutting down Afghanistan level.

  7. wr says:

    Good thinking, Jwest. Let’s reintroduce the horrors of real war. All this wiping out villages of civillians with drones is just so gay. We need to bring back mass murder on an industrial scale. Poison gas attacks. Random carpet bombing of civillian areas.

    Not that jwest will put himself in harm’s way. But I’m sure he’ll get all warm and fuzzy thinking of those mean brown people turned into hamburger.

  8. Steven Plunk says:

    Anyone who says cuts will be easy should be dismissed. Every cut in every program carries with it pain for someone. Waste, fraud, and abuse are there but not at material levels.

    The sooner we accept there is going to be pain as we rein in the spending the better we will be at making the choices.

  9. Jib says:

    A restructuring is needed but military’s never restructure until they are defeated. And even then….

    We have a force structure built on how we won WWII, re-factored for the code war where we faced an adversary that also won WWII and had a force structure to match.

    Aircraft carriers? Really? Are we sure?

    How many armor divisions do we need? Combat air wings? To meet the basic mission, defend the US.

    All that force sure did us a lot of good on 9/11. Trillions spent on defense and we had nothing to stop what the actual threat was.

    We are not doing it right. We are using the hammer we have to pound whatever nails we can find. It is wasteful and destructive and is not getting the job done (Afghanistan / Iraq, 8 years, $ 3 trillion, and still no end?)

    But short of a catastrophic defeat in the field, it appears will we continue the way we are.

  10. jwest says:

    When you want to learn about business, study Vito Corleone.

    When the subject is foreign war, look to James T. Kirk, of the Starship Enterprise. When faced with two planets conducting a “clean” war, where strikes were plotted on computers and people walked into disintegration machines like sheep, Kirk reintroduced them to the prospect of actual war. It became something to be avoided.

    People are becoming accustomed to thinking about the military more as a sports team than an extension of their government and themselves. Even the Iraqis had a detached view of war after their incursion in Kuwait. As long as the actual fighting and dying is divorced from their everyday lives, no one has the incentive to stand in front of tank protesting the destructive policies of their leaders.

    “Mass murder on an industrial scale” is the definition of war. Dresden and Hiroshima make very vivid points that are not soon forgotten.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Ponce: National Defense is the one obligation of the Federal Government we all agree on. But we’re paying for an empire concept military without the bonus of actually having an empire.

    @JWest: Killing people and blowing shit up is a means, not an ends. Wars are conducted to achieve political objectives. I happen to think our objectives in Afghanistan are unobtainable. But blowing more shit up decidedly won’t get help there.

    @Michael and @Steven: Precisely. I’m not sure whether the three of us agreeing on something so fundamental is a sign of progress or serious, serious error.

  12. Richard says:

    A very nuanced defense of your own field, James. Your history as a vet may colour your opinions just a tad, though. I mean, I can give just as passionate a defense of *insert my favourite entitlement program* with your strategy.

    How do we know or quantify how much morale boost we are really getting with some programs? Would the forces be more or less effective with 1/2 the manpower and fewer foreign commitments? How about cutting back on cutting edge research programs? What about all these no-bid contracts we keep hearing about?

    An enlisted schoolmate who had served in Iraq said he was astounded by the waste and corruption pervading the forces. His base officers told everyone to use up all the ammo left at the end of the year or else they wouldn’t get as much funding for the next year.

    If we accept that all bureaucracies have high overheads, we must acknowledge that the armed forces is just as vulnerable.

  13. James Joyner says:


    Oh, I have no doubt that the military wastes a lot of money. It’s just that it’s hard to make bureaucrats quit wasting money when the incentives point in the other direction.

    My experience was very low level (lieutenant) and almost 20 years ago, but the reason we wasted ammo wasn’t to avoid funding cuts but to avoid paperwork. The people at the supply office didn’t want to have to keep track of piddling amounts coming back in and so made it a giant pain in the ass. So we just shot it off at the end of the range once everyone had qualified.

    My SWAG is that we could cut the Defense budget by 1/3 easily and 1/2 painfully and still meet all of our legitimate military obligations. But the cost of doing that is to make it very hard to take on long-term projects like Iraq and Afghanistan which, while politically unpopular, have been undertaken by every president since 1989.

  14. steve says:

    “When the subject is foreign war, look to James T. Kirk”

    Or we could look at reality. The Soviets in Afghanistan most closely followed your model. Westmorleand with his war off attrition comes close. Neither was a winning course. Your ideas may still have some validity in a set piece conventional war, but in an asymmetric war where the enemy is hidden is considered by virtually all of the military as a losing path.

    As to James’ larger points, I think that the big savings are mostly to be had in cutting the big ticket systems, like the F-22, and personnel costs if we are talking ongoing expenses. In the immediate future, getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan is key.


  15. sam says:

    “My experience was very low level (lieutenant) and almost 20 years ago, but the reason we wasted ammo wasn’t to avoid funding cuts but to avoid paperwork. The people at the supply office didn’t want to have to keep track of piddling amounts coming back in and so made it a giant pain in the ass. So we just shot it off at the end of the range once everyone had qualified.”

    My brother was in charge of the Marine security detachment at a prominent Middle-eastern embassy back in the 80s. Every month, regardless, they got a shipment of ammo. They couldn’t store all the stuff and they couldn’t ship it back, so, every month when the shipment came in (and it was a lot of ammo), they all trooped over the military rifle range, and shot the living shit out of the butts for the better part of a Saturday. Got to be a drag, he said.

  16. ponce says:

    “National Defense is the one obligation of the Federal Government we all agree on. But we’re paying for an empire concept military without the bonus of actually having an empire.”

    Maybe in the Roman style, because I don’t believe the United States itself is that well defended. I remember a few years back reading a report that said there were only 8000 combat ready troops in the entire country ready to defend America.

  17. anjin-san says:

    Good plan jwest. And when we screw up like we did by attacking Iraq when there were no WMD, and we use scorched earth tactics, what will you do? Switch to Lost in Space reruns? You might have to join the army, because if we had done it your way, there would be about half a billion committed Al-Queda members out for American blood right now. Then the right wing fantasy of endless war could become a reality.

    In any case, thanks for offing us this glimpse of the far right’s vision for America. Our problems can be solved by killing lots of people.

  18. narciso says:

    Yes, comparing what the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya, to anything we do seems a non starter

  19. Is Ms. Guttman actually someone claiming to have any expertise at all? None is evident in her “recommendations.”

    I’ve quoted you and linked to you here:

  20. Rock says:

    In FY2010, the Treasury Department spent $414 Billion of your money on interest payments to the holders of the National Debt.

    For the 2010 fiscal year, the president’s base budget of the Department of Defense rose to $533.8 billion. Adding spending on “overseas contingency operations” brings the sum to $663.8 billion.

    DOD spending for 2011: $721.3 billion Base budget + “Overseas Contingency Operations”

    The National Debt is 14.1 Trillion. If Congress dont blow the money on more entitlement programs, eliminating the Military completely would help us pay down the interest on the national debt. The Interest!!

    Disclaimer: I don’t know how accurate these figures are since I got them from Wikipedia.

  21. Rob says:

    “Military Bands” FYI- band members provide security for the Division and above HQ when deployed, as well as cover down on all the “Ash and Trash details” that exist even in a combat zone, thereby freeing up infantry and military police units from the security mission at least.

    It might be a surprise to you, but the finance clerks and paper pushers often provide security for convoys as well. So if cuts are made, convoys still have to roll, where do your drivers and gunner come from, the already downsized infantry squads and platoons?

    While the force structure may look like WWII, the number of personnel inside each element from squad to division has shrunken. The military downsized tremendously after the Berlin Wall, an effort that was only interrupted by Desert Storm. If Saddam had waited about two years he’d have had a much smaller US force to face him.

    Undoubtedly there is waste, but while we could fight a conventional war with superior technology, COIN is manpower intensive. What’s the solution?

  22. Rob in CT says:

    This is utterly hilarious:

    “When you want to learn about business, study Vito Corleone.

    When the subject is foreign war, look to James T. Kirk, of the Starship Enterprise…”

    Yes, let us look to two fictional characters for guideance as we plan our nation’s defense. One portraying a Mafia boss and the other the Captain of a Starship in a utopian future.

    What are you, 14? Grow up.

    I take JJ’s point to be that fantasizing about finding significant savings by cutting out stuff that can be generally categorized as “fluff” is childish as well. Much like people who think that we can cut foreign aid and find some “waste” and suddenly the federal budget is balanced. It’s a comforting fantasy, but it bears no resemblence to reality. Cuts will hurt. Military cuts will be particularly difficult.

    I mean look at Rand Paul’s proposal. Here’s a guy who comes up with $500B in cuts (a serious number, unlike anything else we’ve seen of late), but his cut to the military budget? 6.5% Not exactly wielding a machete there, Rand.

  23. Stephanie Gutmann says:

    Mr. Joyner,

    Before making a snarky reference to my book The Kinder, Gentler Military (Scribner, 2000) you might have gone to the trouble of looking it up. It was listed in the New York Times Notable Non-Fiction list for 2000 and for 2001 (paperbacks.) I am most proud, however, of the jacket recommendations written by James Webb, former secretary of the Navy, by the late, great Col. David Hackworth, and by Lt. General Bernard E. Trainor.

    You really didn’t get the point of my blog post. My central point was that the defense budget was being represented as sacrosanct. “Can we at least talk about it?, I asked. “Can we not go over it with the proverbial fine toothed comb.” Of course I’m not a line-by-line expert on the budget. Given its stupefying complexity and sprawl, I doubt anyone is. That complexity is one of the factors shielding it from scrutiny. But anyone who has served in the military (and I know this from personal experience) has tales of appalling, feckless duplication and waste.

    Why did the families of soldiers serving in the first Iraq War have to send their sons and daughters camelbacks, armored vests, even boots? Why did pilots in Kosovo have to do without night vision goggles till very late in our involvement there? Why did troops in our current Iraq engagement have to practically beg for armored vehicles? The answer, as one commenter to my National Review blog post put it, is that “The Army is too fat on top and it hurts the guys on the ground.”

  24. James Joyner says:

    Ms. Gutman,

    I have no opinion on the book you wrote over a decade ago and had blurbed by some famous people who agreed with its ideological premise. I merely commented on the NRO piece you wrote and noted that most of the cuts you proposed were poorly thought out.

    The Army went to Iraq unprepared to fight a long-term desert counterinsugency operation because it was built to fight a series of short, major combat operations in temperate climates and some short-term SASO rotations. We didn’t armorize non-MP HMMVWs because it just never occurred to anyone to do so because the types of wars we’d fought in the past rewarded mobility.

    When I went to Desert Storm, we deployed from Germany and wore our NATO-standard, woodland cammies through the conflict while the National Guard troops manning shower points in the rear areas were in chocolate chip desert cammies. But, again, we hadn’t planned to send 600,000 troops to fight in the desert — that was always a one-off mission for light infantry units. We did have vests and boots; perhaps people wanted desert boots rather than the standard black ones? We certainly had plenty of those.