Pentagon Budget Cuts Are Only Prelude to Future ‘Grand Bargain’

By Sandra I. Erwin
Politicians and think tanks have been hyperventilating over the $487 billion budget cut that the Pentagon will have to make during the next decade.

The austerity plan has inspired a collective “uh-oh” inside the Beltway. Some analysts say the cuts are too deep. Others lambaste it for not going far enough.

But a more significant flaw in the belt-tightening strategy is that it ignores several elephants in the room, such as additional reductions that by law would go into effect by January 2013, and the likelihood that the Pentagon’s budget could again be in the crosshairs if Congress and a future administration decide to seriously tackle the national debt problem.

Analysts also are questioning the process by which the military presumably is having to adjust its missions and strategy every time funding takes a dip.

If Congress fails to avert the January 2013 automatic “sequestration” and possibly $500 billion in further reductions, does that mean the strategy has to be rewritten for a military that will have less to spend?

So much for the credibility of military planning, Washington insiders lament.  

“I hadn’t realized our strategies were so vulnerable to relatively modest changes in resource levels,” said Clark Murdock, director of defense programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In just two years, the military’s job description has been rewritten twice. The 2010 blueprint assumed the budget would grow by 1 percent. The guidance adopted in January was changed to reflect a flat budget. If the automatic cuts go into effect next

January, Murdock wondered, will a new roadmap emerge “out of the rubble of the old budget?”

“Our strategies need to be more robust than that,” he asserted.

There is no question that defense spending has to come down after a decade of rampant growth. But the administration has muddled the process by failing to define a true bottom line. The vision for the military that President Obama unveiled with great fanfare just weeks ago could be obsolete within months, even if Congress makes a deal to avoid part, if not all, sequestration cuts.

Murdock suggested that a more sensible tack might have been to draw a hard budgetary red line, based on historical trends of a 25 to 35 percent cut to military spending that followed previous wars, instead of having the Pentagon rewrite the national security strategy every time we have a budget change.

Pentagon officials characterized the 2013 budget proposal as one that makes “tough choices.” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the cuts forced the Pentagon to eliminate “50 or 60 things” from the military’s to-do list.

Still, the sense is that there is no visible damage from the $487 billion reduction. “That would lead the casual observer, like an appropriator to say, surely there must be more,” said David J. Berteau, director of the CSIS international security program.

It is transparently clear that this budget plan punts all the tough issues into the post-election future.

The biggest shocker in the 2013 budget is the recommendation to ax a total of 100,000 troops from both the Army and the Marine Corps by 2017. That seems a reasonable step following the end of the Iraq war and the projected U.S. exit from Afghanistan by late 2014. But there is no further indication from the new budget plan that any other major missions are being abandoned as a result of the $487 billion cut.

“As for elsewhere around the world, I think one of the strengths of this strategic guidance is that we are going to be able to maintain a global posture and presence,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby said. “This isn’t about taking missions back,” he said. The goal of the strategy is to “rebalance our focus more to the Asia-Pacific. … It’s not about taking stuff off a list. It’s about doing what we need to do a little bit smarter.”

Analysts are less optimistic. This budget dodges polemical decisions such as eliminating an aircraft carrier or making deeper reductions to ground forces. Murdock’s take is that the more controversial items intentionally were evaded so they can become bargaining chips in the coming negotiations to avert sequestration.

One of the third-rail items in any deal will have to be military pay and benefits. Personnel costs are unsustainable, he said. The trend lines that emanate from the current budget point to a bleak future: If spending is held flat, in less than two decades the entire Pentagon’s budget will be consumed by personnel costs. There will be nothing left for equipment, training or infrastructure, he noted. That’s a recipe for the hollow force that everyone wants to avoid.

The expectation is that a “grand bargain” to lower the federal deficit will have to be reached by Congress and whatever administration is sworn in next January. One of the biggest stakes in that debate will be the defense budget, Murdock predicted.

“One of the reasons you don’t see a big gaudy cut in this round is that they know there’s a second round,” he said.

At a minimum, there will be more horse-trading as Congress and the president look for ways to ward off the $500 billion sequester. Beyond that, it remains to be seen whether the administration and legislature that take over next year will stop treating the Pentagon’s budget as a political football. Otherwise, Murdock said, the next four years are going to look like the last two. “I don’t think anyone wants that.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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