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Defense Watch 

Defense Drawdown: It’s Been All Talk, Now It’s Time to Walk 

12  2,012 

By Sandra I. Erwin 

U.S. military spending peaked in 2010 at $668 billion. It has dropped slightly since then, as the military started withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But real austerity has yet to come. So far, the looming budget cuts have been a bogeyman lurking in the dark.

The administration and Congress already have agreed to remove $487 billion from future defense spending beginning in 2013. There is the possibility of further cuts as part of a new deficit-reduction deal expected next year that would avert the congressionally mandated 10 percent across-the-board sequestration. Depending on how the chips end up falling during the negotiations, defense could be squeezed a percentage point or two more.

But the crunch is likely to be relatively benign compared to previous post-war defense drawdowns when budgets plunged by more than 30 percent. The presumption now is that the defense spending curve will stay flat for several years. While that would be welcome news for other federal agencies, no-growth budgets amount to real pain for a Pentagon that, for the most part, still lives in a world where money is no object.

Nobody expects the downsizing to be easy for the Defense Department, where spending has gone unchallenged since 9/11. Former Secretary Robert Gates quipped that trying to cut waste from military agencies was akin to an “Easter egg hunt.”

Tough budget decisions about what stays and what goes have been avoided thus far, as the government has operated in wait-and-see mode over the past year, while hoping for the sequestration meat ax to go away. The crisis should come to some resolution next year when the new Congress gets to work. After that, the Pentagon can no longer keep delaying the inevitable. The economic and political realities simply won’t allow it, says Gordon Adams, foreign policy professor and a former budget official under the Clinton administration.

“The public is focused on jobs, the economy, the deficit and the debt, and it wants these things fixed,” Adams writes in a recent editorial. “So it is high time to start thinking about how to manage a serious drawdown, instead of pretending that it will not happen.”

Under any scenario, there will surely be contentious disagreements about what should be cut. The big money in the Pentagon’s budget is in operations, payroll and benefits for current workers and retirees. Although the administration already has proposed a 100,000-troop reduction and would like to close dozens of military bases around the United States, Congress is likely to push back.

“These are difficult, emotional issues,” says Arnold L. Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general who serves on a Pentagon advisory panel.

If the budget is going to stop growing, the military has to shrink its workforce and infrastructure, he says. The all-volunteer military force has become so expensive that, compared to a decade ago, the Pentagon is paying twice as much for the same number of people. Excessive overhead costs are a chronic problem at the Defense Department, and the imbalance has started to boil over, says Punaro. “There is too much infrastructure, too many bases; personnel and deferred compensation accounts are unconstrained and continue to grow,” he says. Weapons acquisition programs are a drain, too. “They continue to take longer, spend more and deliver less.”

These issues, for too long, have been buried in the “too hard” box, he says. “If they were easy, they would have been fixed.”

Punaro is leading a study that will measure the “fully burdened cost of personnel.” The analysis is expected to provide eye-opening numbers about the cost of military service members, civilian personnel and contractors. “It’s not just the paycheck,” he says. The Pentagon has never studied this in a comprehensive way, Punaro says. “These things usually are not welcome with open arms.”

Slashing payroll and benefits would provide temporary fiscal relief, but might be counterproductive in the long run, some analysts contend.

“The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have revealed the volunteer force’s Achilles’ heel: In order to attract large numbers of qualified personnel who are willing to serve in dangerous and unpleasant wartime conditions, the Defense Department has had to raise salaries and benefits substantially,” says Andrew F. Krepinevich, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The Pentagon will need to set priorities and stop trying to do it all, he writes in a paper titled, “Strategy in a Time of Austerity.”

For the past 20 years, he says, a “stable international order and generous budgets have enabled the United States to avoid making difficult choices about defense and strategy. Decisions were often dominated by the domestic politics of defense policy, parochial bureaucratic interests and sheer inertia rather than rigorous planning.”

In the strategic guidance that President Obama unveiled a year ago for the Defense Department, he called for a shift in focus from large-scale land conflicts to low-intensity special operations, cyber and drone warfare. These missions, however, are being treated by the generals as additional items to be piled on the to-do list, rather than priorities that will require them to give up existing fiefdoms.

Some generals are beginning to get the message, though. “None of us are sitting there [in the Pentagon] right now with an expectation that we’re not going to go through a period of austerity,” says Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.

Based on historical trends, the military will be in downsizing mode for probably a decade, he says. As a result, the nation’s defense strategy should not be about “what we can afford” but rather about “what our nation should do as a global power.” All military leaders these days, he says, are trying to figure out “how much is enough.”

Reader Comments

Re: Defense Drawdown: It’s Been All Talk, Now It’s Time to Walk

Hmmm few of those "hard" decisions actually seem that hard. The fact that programs like Zumwalt, Airborne Laser, CGX got as far as they proves that DoD has been prolifigate in spending. The elimination of units operating worn out equipment or equipment without a real mission is hardly doing it tough either (a case could be made for the A10 but the politics of JSF killed that). Thus far, most of your examples have been cuts that are no brainers and either should have been cut sooner or should never have got as far as they did. I believe the author was pointing out that the future holds real cuts for capabilities that actually deliver on their promise instead of the gold plated junk you have mentioned.

michael on 12/04/2012 at 23:25

Re: Defense Drawdown: It’s Been All Talk, Now It’s Time to Walk

Well put Zbigniew Mazurak, very well put. But you know the Liberal thinking, Got to Save all those Social Programs and push Green Energy on the Military at 26 Times the cost of current fuels.

Terry Tee on 11/15/2012 at 19:47

Re: Defense Drawdown: It’s Been All Talk, Now It’s Time to Walk

"U.S. military spending peaked in 2010 at $668 billion. It has dropped slightly since then, as the military started withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

But real austerity has yet to come. So far, the looming budget cuts have been a bogeyman lurking in the dark."

Utter garbage written by a totally ignorant person.

US military spending has already declined significantly since FY2010, to $645 bn in FY2012, and is on track to decline to $613 bn in January, even without sequestration. The base defense budget will be cut to a paltry $525 bn in FY2013, again without sequestration.

Counting the $487 bn cuts that Erwin dismisses so cavalierly, as well as the big weapon program closures of 2009 and 2010 and the $178 bn Gates Efficiencies Initiative, defense spending has already been cut by some $900 bn since 2009.

"There is the possibility of further cuts as part of a new deficit-reduction deal expected next year that would avert the congressionally mandated 10 percent across-the-board sequestration. Depending on how the chips end up falling during the negotiations, defense could be squeezed a percentage point or two more.

But the crunch is likely to be relatively benign compared to previous post-war defense drawdowns when budgets plunged by more than 30 percent. The presumption now is that the defense spending curve will stay flat for several years."

Blatant lies. Firstly, if sequestration kicks in - as it likely will - defense spending will be cut by a full 15%, on top of ALL defense cuts already implemented or scheduled.

Secondly, sequestration, combined with these previous cuts, would cut defense by between 29% and 30% on an annualized basis, and these would be the deepest cuts to defense spending since the 1950s. After Vietnam and after the end of the Cold War, defense spending was cut by ca. 26%, less than what is currently scheduled.

Furthermore, under sequestration, defense spending will NOT stay flat. Not even close. If sequestration kicks in, base defense spending will be cut down from $531 bn down to $469 bn in January 2013 (i.e. by $62 bn virtually overnight), and will not return to its current level for more than a decade (if ever)! Even by FY2022, it will still be at $493 bn, $38 bn below today's level But even without sequestration, defense spending will not return to its current level until FY2018.

"While that would be welcome news for other federal agencies, no-growth budgets amount to real pain for a Pentagon that, for the most part, still lives in a world where money is no object.

Nobody expects the downsizing to be easy for the Defense Department, where spending has gone unchallenged since 9/11. Former Secretary Robert Gates quipped that trying to cut waste from military agencies was akin to an “Easter egg hunt.”

Tough budget decisions about what stays and what goes have been avoided thus far, as the government has operated in wait-and-see mode over the past year, while hoping for the sequestration meat ax to go away."

Yet another tranche of blatant lies. The DOD has already had to make many tough choices, both for FY2013 and for previous FYs. This year, preparing the budget for FY2013, the DOD has had to, inter alia:
1) Cancel several crucial weapon systems such as the JDRADM air-to-air missile;
2) Deeply cut the shipbuilding budget and scale the next 5-year shipbuilding plan from 57 to 41 ships;
3) Eliminate six tactical fighter/striker squadrons and retire hundreds of aircraft, including F-16s, A-10s, Global Hawks, C-27s, Sherpas, C-130s, and C-5s;
4)Retire 7 powerful Navy cruisers;
5) Find another $60 bn in efficiencies;
6) Make sweeping, unpopular reforms to military personnel costs, including healthcare and retirement programs.

In previous years, the DOD has had to find another $178 bn in efficiencies, kill over 50 crucial weapon programs (including the F-22, the Zumwalt class, the EP-X aircraft, the CGX cruiser, the C-17, the AC-X gunship, the MKV, the KEI, the Airborne Laser, and the CSAR-X helicopter), eliminate entire commands, and lay off over 150 generals and admirals.

The claim that the DOD has not had to make any tough choices is a blatant lie, like the rest of this screed. It has had to do so since 2009.

The claim that since 9/11 spending has not been questioned at the DOD is also a blatant lie, as every year since (and before) 9/11 the DOD has had to face tough questions from the Congress about its spending and programs.

Erwin's claims are blatant lies. She should be ashamed of herself for lying so blatantly.

Zbigniew Mazurak on 11/13/2012 at 12:10

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