The Truth About The Coming “Cuts” To Defense Spending

Don't believe the fear mongering about the coming decreases in the growth of defense spending.

As I noted last week, the failure of the Joint Select Committee on the Deficit (a/k/a the “Super Committee”) to come up with an alternative deficit reduction plan has led to calls from the Pentagon, Republican legislators, and several Republican candidates for President to revisit, and repeal, the defense portion of the sequestration cuts set to take effect beginning in 2013. The standard line you’re hearing from this corner is that these cuts will require massive scale backs in equipment acquisition and repair, and will have a devastating effect on force structure. Roger McShone of The Economist takes a look at the numbers and debunks doomsayers:

So by how much will the defence budget decline over the next decade? That could be seen as a trick question, because in nominal terms it will grow. Prior to the supercommittee’s failure, the defence budget was slated to increase some 23% between 2012 and 2021. Now, according to Veronique de Rugy, the Pentagon will have to make do with a 16% boost. According to Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, that means funding would fall by 11% in real terms from FY2012 to FY2013, then grow by slightly more than the rate of inflation for the rest of the decade. Or to put it another way, as Lawrence Korb does, the “sequestration will return defense spending in real terms to its FY 2007 level, the next to last year of the Bush administration, when no one was complaining about devastating levels of spending.”

At a time when money is tight, that would seem reasonable, no? According to Winslow Wheeler, of the Center for Defense Information, the FY2007 level of funding would be higher, in real terms, than average annual military spending during the cold war. But these numbers have not quieted the critics. And perhaps the most ardent among them has been Mr Panetta. My colleague cites a statement from the secretary, in which he lists the tragic results of a 16% increase: “We would be left with our smallest ground force since 1940, the fewest ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history.” Here’s another fact: America already has the fewest ships since 1916, despite a 70% increase in defence spending between 2001 and 2010. Now that could be because America’s military needs yet more money, or it could be because the nature of warfare has changed and new technology has made our weapon systems more efficient. Does Mr Panetta believe a P-51 is equal to an F-35, or might this be an effort to mislead and alarm?

Well considering that it is Panetta’s job, in some respect, to protect his turf I think it’s pretty fair to say that he is going to paint the worst-case-possible scenario when it comes to these cuts. After all, when was the last time a Cabinet Secretary stood up and advocated in favor of cutting spending for their department? Moreover the exaggerated arguments that Panetta is making play right into the Republican meme, and make it easier to enlist them in an effort to overturn the cuts even though the Defense Department is effectively taking a position in direction opposition to the President himself, who has said he’d veto any effort to overturn the cuts.

McShone goes on to make a point that I’ve made here before, which is that even with the cuts (which are, again, merely reductions in the rate of growth of spending), the U.S. defense budget will far outstrip that of any other country in the world:

America spends as much on defence as the next 17 countries combined (most of whom are American allies). America’s main competitor for the title of most profligate is China, which spends about 17% as much as America on defence. That number will continue to grow, but to give you a sense of where China stands in relation to America, look at its big military accomplishment from this year: the successful refurbishment of an old Soviet aircraft carrier, its first. America has 11 aircraft carriers, another in construction, and one more in reserve.

Kevin Drum comments:

So can we afford to reduce defense spending to 2007 levels? Of course we can. The world is not more dangerous today than it was in 2007, and there’s no a priori reason it should cost more to defend the security of the United States today than it did in 2007. We might spend that money differently, of course. Perhaps the Pentagon will decide it would rather have a thousand more drones instead of a single additional supercarrier group. That might well make sense since the mission of supercarrier groups is becoming fuzzier all the time in an era of primarily asymmetric warfare.

The supercommittee sequestration will require the Pentagon to find additional cuts of about $50 billion per year in its budget. To pretend that this would make us virtually defenseless is to insult our collective intelligence. We can make that cut and still have the most powerful military on the planet by a factor of five or six. If that doesn’t make you feel safe, nothing will.

Exactly, if we cannot afford to cut $50 billion a year from the defense budget then we will never get a handle on the exploding Federal Budget deficit, and the idea that the cuts that would have to be implemented would endanger America is the same kind of fearmongering we  hear every time one weapons system or another gets questioned.  You can be sure, for example, that the defense industry lobby has been whispering in the ears of Republicans all over Capitol Hill, because their chief concern isn’t what’s best for the United States, but what’s best for the defense industry. President Eisenhower reminded us in January 1961 what the differences between the two actually are.Expect to hear more fear mongering from the Pentagon and the Republicans over the next several months, and perhaps even a legislative attack on the sequestration cuts. They’ll tell us it’s necessary for the national security of the United States that we avoid these cuts. In reality, what they’re saying is that it’s necessary for the security of the Pentagon and the defense industry. It’s time they learned that the gravy train is coming to an end.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, National Security, Science & Technology, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Hey Norm says:

    Jon Kyl is screaming like a stuck pig.
    You could double the sequestration (we should) and it wouldn’t hurt our defense capabilities.

  2. Eric says:

    But Doug, you’re missing the point. Yeah if we cut the defense funding, we’ll still have the most powerful military force in the world, we’ll still have the most nuclear bombs in the world, we’ll still spend the most money on weapons and soldiers in the world, I get that.

    But even with all that, we just can’t cut funding for our defense. Because if we do, then we’ll let the terrorists win.

  3. bluepenguin says:

    And any fiscal conservative that argues against the cuts is FCINO!

  4. Rob in CT says:

    Eisenhower knew what he was talking about. My supposedly liberal democratic congresscritter sends out triumphant emails every time Electric Boat gets a new gummint contract. When closing the Groton sub base was under consideration, our reps fought tooth and nail to keep it open.

    Spending in someone else’s district = pork. Spending in my district = critical jobs.

  5. waltm says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Indeed. One also wonders what happens when the pink slips start flying at contractors, civilian employees and the uniformed branches and on down the supply chain.

  6. Lomax says:

    One of our greatest generals, General LeMay of the SAC, always managed to make do with whatever was appropriated by Congress and still kept the Russians from launching an air attack on the US.

  7. ponce says:

    The Soviets were never coming.

    LeMay was a sociopath.

  8. mike says:

    The issue, IMO, will come down to jobs. For every active duty slot lost / unit deleted, there are big effects on the surrounding towns. Combine this with a RIF and cutting weapons system equals a lot of lost jobs. I am not saying whether this is a good or bad thing as far as the efficiency of these jobs in the first place, however, this is what Congress fears b/c they have to face this in their districts.

  9. Hey Norm says:

    The jobs thing is a red herring.
    Reducing DOD growth from 23% to 16% is not going to require shutting down bases or anything of the sort. There is more waste in the DOD than anywhere else in Government…and the DOD budget is some 20% of the Federal Budget. If we can’t bend that curve then we have real problems.
    Defense is second only to health care in how we spend too much money.
    Then we can start looking at fossil fuel and agriculture subsidies.

  10. Racehorse says:

    While we are on this subject, I would like to know what goes on at the famous Area 51 base.
    How can I access documents about this area ? Is it still used? Are citizens allowed in there?
    I wonder how much money is spent on projects there and what the projects are. I think it is time that the government came out with this. A private commission should look into this and be given complete access to the records and the base itself. Workers should be given immunity.

  11. Wa says:

    So does this mean the other so call cuts were most likely overstated as well? It sounds like we have more room than let on to reduce spending.

  12. mike says:

    @Hey Norm: You might be correct but everyone is looking to save money by cutting active duty slots and civilian positions. Whether they could save money by trimming fat instead, I am sure they can – but will they – doesn’t seem like it.