Military Not Ready to Give Up Missions, Despite Budget Cuts

By Sandra I. Erwin
U.S. defense spending has been on a downward trend since 2010, when it peaked at $738 billion. The sequestration cuts passed into law this month would keep military budgets on a gradual decline over the coming decade.
The Congressional Budget Office warns that the Pentagon will have to trim nearly $900 billion from future budgets between now and 2021 in order to comply with spending caps mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act. As a result, CBO says, the military “will have to cut back on its forces and activities a little more every year through 2021 or find additional efficiencies each year to remain within the budget caps.”
These projections notwithstanding, it would be premature for the military to start scaling back its current missions or curtail global deployments, says Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast, director of the Air Force quadrennial defense review at the office of the Air Force assistant vice chief of staff.
“To presuppose that missions will go away because there is less money is shortsighted,” Kwast says March 20 at an Air Force Association gathering. Numerous studies have recommended that the Defense Department reduce its commitments sooner, rather than later, because it will not be able to afford doing what it currently does when budgets come down. Kwast disagrees, and argues that the military should find ways to do the same, with less. “Creative approaches can create room where you can still accomplish things, but do them differently,” he says.
As director of the Air Force QDR, Kwast will be deeply involved in this debate as the Pentagon begins a sweeping review of the Obama administration’s 2012 strategic guidance. The 60-day review was ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The Pentagon also is kicking off the congressionally mandated QDR that will culminate in a February 2014 report to Congress. The review is intended to provide a long-term vision of what the military will be doing over the coming decades and what resources it would need to achieve those goals.
It is not clear at this point that any of these reviews will result in significant cutbacks to military commitments, Kwast says.
“It will be part of the conversation … It remains to be seen how that will play out,” he says. “It may be true, we’ll see. It may not be necessary.”
He rejects the idea that budget cuts should force the military to retreat from the world. “It’s not a direct correlation: less money therefore fewer missions.”
But Kwast recognizes that wishful thinking alone cannot overcome the budget realities.
“We're in an environment of fewer resources, yet we have an aspiration to still be a global leader,” he says. The NATO alliance struggles with this all the time, he says. “They have aspirations for doing many things in this world that are good. Yet a budgetary reality doesn’t quite achieve that aspiration,” he says.
A study commissioned by former defense secretary Leon Panetta in anticipation of the sequester concludes that the current military has no choice but to downsize as a consequence of the automatic cuts. If sequestration happens, the RAND Corp. study says, “It will no longer be affordable for U.S. forces to maintain the suite of capabilities needed to support the strategy outlined by Secretary of Defense Panetta in the new strategic guidance. … Thus, we postulate that there are considerable advantages to DoD’s establishing a strategic direction in which to accommodate further sizable reductions.” This will require “prioritization of defense challenges and of what risks to accept, with force structure and program decisions following.”
According to briefing charts published March 19 by Bloomberg Government, historically, U.S. defense spending has dropped on average by about 36 percent over seven years following the end of previous wars. If current defense budget follows this pattern, the briefing notes, "funding would bottom out at $474 billion in 2015, seven years after its $738 billion wartime peak.”
Photo Credit: Thinkstock, Air Force

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, DOD Policy

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