DoD, Wake Up And Cut!

The tidal wave is coming for defense budgets. Promising $100 billion in savings over five years, but hoping to keep the funds is not going to hold it back. The wave is coming, first, from a growing sentiment that America’s debts and deficits are our number one security problem, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen has said, and that defense must play a part in solving the problem.

The tidal wave is coming for defense budgets. Promising $100 billion in savings over five years, but hoping to keep the funds is not going to hold it back.

The wave is coming, first, from a growing sentiment that America’s debts and deficits are our number one security problem, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen has said, and that defense must play a part in solving the problem. At $708 billion, defense consumes 19.4 percent of the federal budget this year compared to 19 percent for Social Security, 17.5 percent for other discretionary spending, and 16 percent for income-based entitlements.

Second, the tidal wave is coming from a growing recognition that we are doing way too much in the world, and way too much of it using our military forces. It is clearly time to reassess.

The latest wave to hit the beach is today’s release of the Rivlin-Domenici Debt Reduction Task Force’s plan, sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Although defense gadfly WinWheeler has described it as “one of the softest on DOD of those available,” it is pretty tough in pushing DOD to more basic priority-setting and choice-making than anything the Secretary has done to date.

The Rivlin-Domenici plan calls for a flat, nominal five year freeze in the defense budget, starting in FY 2012, with growth after that point only at the rate at which the economy grows overall. By fiscal 2020, that will provide $1.1 trillion in defense contributions to deficit reduction, measured against the Congressional Budget Office baseline. War costs are included in that baseline, but calculated on the assumption that 30,000 US forces are forward deployed in combat, well below the 150,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

The report goes beyond the most recent set of options put out by Presidential Debt Commission co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. The defense options, prepared by the Stimson Center, are driven by an analysis of priority missions for the military and an evaluation of investments driven by mission and cost-effectiveness

The mission and threat assessment behind the report sets priorities, something the DoD Quadrennial Defense Review did not do earlier this year. Cybersecurity, operations against Al Qaeda and its network, adequate forces for deterrence and reassurance, sea patrol, and humanitarian missions take priority. And the ambition to fight a “permanent war” against insurgents, stabilization around the globe, and a major military role in governance and security are given lower priority.

Setting these priorities allows a 275,000 reduction in the size of the US military. This would include a roll-back of the ground force increase of 92,000 carried out in recent years, a reduction of 80,000 in forward-deployed forces in Europe and Asia (rebalancing the remaining commitment to Asia, over Europe), and a reduction of 100,000 in uniformed personnel who are working in infrastructure and commercial activities at DOD, as a contribution to shrinking the DOD overhead and rebalancing the remaining forces to the defense “tail.”

Investment choices would follow suit. While all such decisions are hard, the BPC option would terminate the F-35 and V-22, along with the Marines EFV. For aircraft, it would substitute current fighters, still in production, and helicopters. It would also recommend major reductions in non-Major Defense Acquisition Program procurement, which consumes 60% of the DOD procurement budget, and a 19% down-slope in R&D budgets.

The forces that remain after this build-down would remain globally dominant. The U.S. would continue to be the only power patrolling the world’s oceans. Its army would be larger and significantly more globally deployable than any other country, including China, whose forces do not deploy abroad. Its technology would surpass that of any other country; the R&D budget would be larger than the entire defense budget of any other country. Its Special Forces, at 55,000, would be larger than most countries’ entire militaries and could be deployed globally. It would be the only country with global military transportation, logistics, communications, and intelligence (funded at a level today — $80 billion – that also is larger than any other country’s defense budget).

This point tends to get missed in all the worry about “gutting defense” and an “overstressed military.” We are coming home from Iraq and, soon, from Afghanistan. We are not going to invade another country, with the intent of regime change and occupation any time soon. And we are outspending and outperforming the rest of the world, in military terms, and would continue to do so well into the foreseeable future.

It is entirely irrelevant to argue that, at 4.3% of GDP, we can afford this military and more. At a 60% debt to GDP ratio, which is projected to grow to 100% by the end of the decade, we cannot afford to march forward the way we have in any part of the federal budget. And we are spending enough for our security, much more than enough; the GDP ratio tells one nothing about the capabilities or capacity of the forces – that is the key measure.

Can we do this? You bet. We did it from 1985 to 1998, when a similar fiscal and policy tidal wave hit defense. And as much as some will complain about force stress, readiness, and overstretch, that was the force that waltzed through Iraq like a knife through butter. It was a spectacularly successful build-down, and we can do it even better this time. But the Pentagon needs to wake up and recognize that the wave is coming.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service. He led the Stimson Center team that drew up the Bipartisan Policy Center defense options. From 1993–97, he led the Pentagon budget creation as associate director for national security and international Affairs at the Offce of Management and Budget.