Posted on August 14, 2012
Unless Congress acts to
undo the $110 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to
take effect early next year, most federal
programs will be cut by about eight percent. These cuts are the unfortunate
product of crisis budgeting and will have deleterious impacts on many Americans,
but harm to national defense won't be one of them.
Ending a months-long
congressional battle to increase the federal debt ceiling, the Budget Control
Act of 2011 (BCA) was signed into law on Aug. 2, 2011. The legislation put in
place a complex set of provisions designed to reduce the deficit by some $2
trillion over the next ten years. It immediately reduced discretionary budget
authority by $840 billion (over ten years) and required the establishment of a
bipartisan, joint select committee that was charged with creating legislation
that would reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion. However, because this so-called
Super Committee could not agree on a plan, a provision in the BCA has triggered
automatic, across-the-board cuts ("sequestration") of $984 billion starting on
Jan. 2, 2013. Half of these cuts ($492 billion) will be applied to national
defense spending and the other half to non-defense spending. Spaced out evenly,
the cuts to defense and non-defense spending will be $54.7 billion per year over
the next nine years.
Both sides of the aisle and the Obama administration
have been raising alarms about the impact that sequestration will have on
national defense. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified the cuts would be "devastating" and
"hollow out the force and inflict serious damage to the national defense." In an
opinion piece co-authored with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the House
Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon (R-CA) wrote that the $54.7 billion (7.5 percent) cut would "force the
greatest Armed Forces in history to its knees." And Speaker of the House John
Boehner (R-OH) believes the cuts will "hurt our Department of Defense, will hurt
our ability to…provide security for the American people."
the Department of Defense (DOD) argue that cutting $492 billion (the sequester
amount over the next 10 years) would, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) described
it, "shoot ourselves in the head." The
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, went so far as to
suggest that the cuts would "increase the
likelihood of conflict" because the United States would "go from being
unquestionably powerful everywhere to being less visible globally and presenting
less of an overmatch to our adversaries."
In reality, a $55 billion
reduction in defense spending in FY 2013 would return defense spending to levels
seen just a few years ago in 2006, when the Pentagon had $597 billion in
discretionary budget authority. In 2001, the DOD discretionary budget authority
was $402 billion (in 2011 dollars). Ten years later, in 2011, that number had
increased by 71 percent to $687 billion. This growth has outpaced all other
discretionary spending. In that same time period, the discretionary budget for
the rest of the government increased by 21 percent, growing from $442 billion
(in 2011 dollars) to $534 billion.
The United States spends about five
times as much on defense as the next biggest spender, China, and about $100
billion more than then next ten nations combined. A $55 billion reduction in
defense spending would mean that we would still outspend the next ten top defense spenders combined by
Combined, the automatic cuts and the initial
BCA spending caps would reduce defense spending by about $1 trillion over 10
years. To put that into perspective, the DOD has
spent $1.3 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. In that
same time, it saw its non-war expenditures increase from $401 billion (in 2011 dollars) to $527.9
billion and its share of the discretionary budget grow from 48 percent to
over 50 percent.
Should the defense sequester occur, the U.S. would
undoubtedly retain its preeminence as the world’s military superpower. Defense
spending would still be more than four times larger than our nearest military
spending competitors. And when compared against recent historic growth in
defense spending, sequestration can hardly be considered a significant
Regardless of the relative level of military spending, it
remains unclear that cutting $492 billion from the defense budget will
materially affect the nation's military capabilities. A close study of the
Pentagon's weapons acquisitions reveals that every dollar spent on defense
procurement is not a dollar spent on increased security. Two government watchdog
groups – the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) and Taxpayers for Common
Sense (TCS) – examined the DOD's weapons acquisition spending and found that
Congress and the Pentagon can reduce military expenditures without hurting
national security. POGO-TCS identified $700
billion (from FY 2013 to FY 2022) in wasteful or unnecessary national
security spending, while the Center for American
Progress (CAP) found $600 billion in potential savings from reducing
unneeded military resources.
CAP and POGO-TCS noted that both the V-22
airplane-helicopter hybrid and the ground-based missile defense system have
significant operational limitations, calling into question their contributions
to national defense. Cutting these two programs would save $23 billion over the
next 10 years ($6 billion from missile defense and $17 billion from the V-22).
All three groups also reported that the role of certain variants of the F-35, a
next-generation fighter jet, could be executed just as effectively with the
current fleet of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and do it for a fraction of the price.
The new F-35s are projected to cost $200 million each, compared to the $5.7
million acquisition cost of the F-18. Limiting acquisition of the F-35 could
save $54 billion over the next 10 years. POGO-TCS also point out that Congress
is forcing the Pentagon to purchase more M1 tanks that it says it needs,
needlessly appropriating $272 million in FY 2012.
Defense cuts as a
strategy for deficit reduction has bipartisan support. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK),
an uncompromising deficit hawk, would like to see defense spending on the
chopping block. According to Coburn, none of the
military personnel that he's spoken to, which includes "four-star generals
all the way down to privates," would agree that a 10 to 15 percent cut in DOD
spending would affect military readiness or strength. The libertarian Cato
Institute has proposed cutting $1.2 trillion from
the defense budgetover the next 10 years, recognizing that not all military
spending directly supports national defense.
The BCA is a
bull-in-the-china shop approach to deficit reduction. The automatic,
across-the-board cuts set to take place in a few months will have serious
consequences for the economy, our public protections, and the social safety net.
Cutting defense spending, on the other hand, will only impact the bottom line of
defense contractors who spend millions lobbying
Congress to keep their funding stream flowing.
Image in teaser by
flickr user mindfrieze,
used under a Creative Commons license.