Like Medicare and Social Security, cutting defense spending has been something of a 'do not enter' zone for many lawmakers. But that may be changing.
President Obama on Wednesday placed defense spending squarely on the table as one way to help rein in a ballooning federal deficit, a move that may reopen political attacks on Democrats as soft on national security but that is likely to have some support from tea party Republicans bent on dramatically reducing the size - and price tag - of government.
Like Medicare and Social Security, cutting defense spending has been something of a "do not enter" zone for many lawmakers. For a decade, Congress quickly dismissed proposed cuts to the military as too risky for US troops fighting wars on two fronts. The Pentagon's budget has roughly doubled in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and defense spending has gone largely untouched even since the Great Recession.
Still, many analysts suggest that the defense budget has probably reached its zenith and is in for years of steady decline.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged as much last year, saying the US military could no longer be immune from cuts in an era of fiscal crisis. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, allowed that "the single biggest threat to our national security is our debt."
Even so, the Pentagon has cautioned that cutting will have its limits - and that going too far means exposing America to potential harm. "Suggestions to cut defense by this or that large number have largely become exercises in simple math, divorced from serious considerations of capabilities, risk, and the level of resources needed to protect this country's security and vital interests around the world," Mr. Gates said at a news conference in February.
Finding $400 billion in cuts over the next 12 years, as Mr. Obama has proposed, will mean identifying "missions the country is willing to have the military forgo," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell on Wednesday.
Obama may not have called for such cuts if Congress had not signaled greater willingness to entertain the idea. Congress's fiscal 2011 budget proposal for the Department of Defense was $530 billion - $20 billion below what the Pentagon originally requested and $10 billion below what Secretary Gates, who is widely popular on Capitol Hill, had said was his "bottom line."
"It shows that there's growing pressure in Washington to reduce the deficit by all means available," says Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). "If there is a compromise solution that significantly reduces the deficit over the next five to 10 years, it will include defense."
The president called for reducing the deficit by $4 trillion overall ($3 trillion in cuts and $1 trillion in new revenues) over the next 10 years. The Pentagon accounts for one-fifth of federal government spending.
As it stands now, America's base defense budget in inflation- adjusted dollars is higher than it was at the peak of the Reagan buildup, the Vietnam War, or the Korean War. "You have to go all the way back to World War II to see a defense budget that is higher in inflation-adjusted dollars," says CSBA's Mr. …