With Obama's speech, momentum gathering to cut defense spending

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.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama outlines his fiscal policy during an address at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, April 13.

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. Harrison.

Now, as the negotiations begin for the fiscal year 2012 budget (which starts Oct. 1), proposals coming from the far right and far left are looking increasingly similar. “On defense spending, the political spectrum collapses on the far ends,” says Travis Sharp, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security. “There is a significant amount of agreement that the United States should spend less on defense and maintain less of a global military presence.”

Analysts are watching closely, however, to see if tea-party Republicans will maintain that stance in the face of defense industry campaign cash – and amid political pressure from within their own party. Many of those in the GOP leadership – including Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee and has been critical of proposed Pentagon cuts – could use their positions to encourage tea-party colleagues to stand down on defense cuts.

“Overall, I think the tea party forces are unlikely to prevail,” predicts Mr. Sharp. “Tea-party Republicans may hate high levels of spending, but the safe bet is that they hate Obama even more, and the reality is that the Democratic Party has historically been vulnerable to attacks on its national security policy, which could include defense spending,” he adds. “There is a strong argument to be made that the Republican Party wins in the broad sense by supporting higher levels of defense spending,” especially at a time when Democrats are suggesting cuts.

Though the defense budget in the years to come is likely to be less than the Pentagon seeks, the military has still scored “an enormous victory,” says Sharp.

The Bipartisan Policy Center Debt Reduction Task Force – as well as the chairmen of Obama's own deficit commission – called for some $1 trillion in defense cuts over 10 years. That Obama proposed much less – $400 billion over 12 years – is no small accomplishment for Defense Department leaders, particularly Mr. Gates, says Sharp.

“They have largely protected their budget in an era when policymakers are willing to suggest [program] changes ... that are extremely controversial and threatening to their political careers. Reforming Medicare is a huge 'third rail' in American politics. Taxes are political suicide – yet they are talking about all of these things,” he adds.

For its part, the Pentagon says it will launch a “comprehensive review” to look for the $400 billion in cuts, which officials insist will be no easy feat. "It's not just a math exercise, which is 'cut $400 billion,' " said Mr. Morrell. "It's, 'Let's review our roles and our missions and see what we can forgo, or pare down, in this age of fiscal constraint.' "

Doing that will require identifying America’s strategic priorities – with a fair degree of precision – in the years to come, says Harrison. “Before you get to the cuts, you have to say, ‘What are the capabilities we’re going to need in the future? What are our highest priorities, and what are the low priorities that we’re going to have to do without?

“And that’s where you should start,” Harrison adds. “If you want that new long-range bomber, what other thing are you willing to give up to pay the bill?”

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