Shadow Government

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The real danger in Washington: defense cuts

President Obama has made it very clear that he sees the defense budget as a major contributor to however many trillions in program cuts that a debt ceiling deal will require. It was only months ago that he announced that he would seek $400 billion in cuts over twelve years. It now appears that his ...

ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama has made it very clear that he sees the defense budget as a major contributor to however many trillions in program cuts that a debt ceiling deal will require. It was only months ago that he announced that he would seek $400 billion in cuts over twelve years. It now appears that his target is, at a minimum, twice that amount, and it could reach a trillion -- and that over a decade.

The military simply cannot sustain cuts of that magnitude and preserve a strategy that, in its fundamentals, has not changed since the end of the Second World War. That strategy called for U.S. forces to deploy "forward", whether in Europe, the Middle East or Asia, so as to fight far away from the United States' shores. With cuts the size of those being discussed, the United States will no longer be able to maintain its presence overseas, other than in a "virtual" sense, and, as one wag has put it, "virtual presence is actual absence." 

President Obama has made it very clear that he sees the defense budget as a major contributor to however many trillions in program cuts that a debt ceiling deal will require. It was only months ago that he announced that he would seek $400 billion in cuts over twelve years. It now appears that his target is, at a minimum, twice that amount, and it could reach a trillion — and that over a decade.

The military simply cannot sustain cuts of that magnitude and preserve a strategy that, in its fundamentals, has not changed since the end of the Second World War. That strategy called for U.S. forces to deploy "forward", whether in Europe, the Middle East or Asia, so as to fight far away from the United States’ shores. With cuts the size of those being discussed, the United States will no longer be able to maintain its presence overseas, other than in a "virtual" sense, and, as one wag has put it, "virtual presence is actual absence." 

It is difficult to see how cuts approaching $100 billion in each of the next ten years will not eviscerate the U.S. defense posture. Defense "entitlements" — military pay and retirement, as well as military health care — absorb a substantial portion of the budget and seem virtually immune to reductions. It has taken years to move Congress just to contemplate enacting a minor increase in co-pays for the Tricare health program, while any change to the military retirement system, which penalizes anyone who serves less than twenty years but over-rewards those who serve longer, has been strictly verboten. Civilian personnel are immune to reductions — cuts in any office simply have led civilians to migrate to other offices. Operations and maintenance, which account for about a third of all defense spending, include payments to a huge cadre of  "staff augmentation" contractors whose number the department has never been able to calculate.

Unless  there is a change in the department’s approach to budget cutting — a most unlikely prospect — defense acquisition, already plagued by rising costs, schedule delays, and poor management, as well as the training, spare parts, and logistics accounts, inevitably will bear the brunt of the massive Obama cutbacks. Cuts in procurement, research and development, training, and spares marked previous drawdowns, whether in the 1970s, the era of the "hollow Army" or the 1990s, the decade of the "peace dividend." This time around, however, the U.S. military and its equipment are worn out, ravaged by two seemingly never-ending conflicts and several other smaller ones that receive far fewer headlines. It actually would take a budget increase, not a decrease, to restore U.S. forces to their pre-September 2001 state.

There is much talk of reducing the Army’s end-strength, cutting back on the carrier force, and shrinking the F-35 buy, among other programmatic reductions. While some cuts in land forces are to be expected when all U.S. troops finally leave Iraq at the end of this year (unless Prime Minister Maliki decides he wants thousands of them to stay), and more cuts when U.S. troops depart from Afghanistan in 2014, assuming they actually do leave, those cuts surely place an even greater premium on naval and air forces. If those forces are also cut back, the United States will, sooner rather than later, have to scale back its air and naval presence in both the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, ceding those oceans to others, be they China, Iran, or India. Indeed, it is ironic that as Washington decides whether to reduce the carrier force by one or two ships, China is building its first aircraft carrier.

There is no doubt that the administration is deadly serious about increasing the level of defense reductions in any debt ceiling deal that is finally negotiated. After all, the leadership team at the Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget are veterans of the "peace dividend" cuts. It is up to the Congress to resist further cuts beyond the $400 billion/twelve year proposal that the president has called for and, further, to insist that the already battered acquisition accounts be shielded from significant redutions. Instead, the Congress should take a second look at defense health, the antiquated defense retirement system, and the bloated defense civilian and "staff augmentation" service contractor force, and mandate cuts in all of those accounts.

The world will not stand by idly if the United States wrecks what has been the finest military force in the history of the world. Instead, nations will, as some in East Asia and the Middle East already have done, look to other powers for support and leadership. It is a prospect that should chill all of the debt-ceiling negotiators. Defaulting on defense will lead to far greater and more disastrous long term consequences for the United States than having a small clique of bond rating agencies downgrade America’s paper.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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