Pentagon Budget Cuts Are Only Prelude to Future 'Grand Bargain'

By Erwin, Sandra I. | National Defense, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Pentagon Budget Cuts Are Only Prelude to Future 'Grand Bargain'


Erwin, Sandra I., National Defense


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 Ash ton 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 teau, director of the CSIS international security program. …

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