When $613 billion = belt-tightening: the 2013 Pentagon budget

 In Pentagon Spending

The big picture

With much fanfare, the Pentagon gave a preview of their Fiscal Year 2013 budget rollout late last month. The budget is informed by the earlier announcement of a new 21st century military strategy as well as legislation passed by Congress that required around $487 billion in military spending reductions over 10 years.

These shifts come on the heels of years of skyrocketing military spending, including two wars that were paid for outside the regular budget process for most of the last decade.

Today, the administration released the details of all its budget proposals, now kicking it to Congress to fight over favored line items and engage in the bigger debate about what our nation can afford and what cuts our security can sustain.

The big picture is that the base Pentagon budget request is for $525 billion, a modest $5 billion less than what was appropriated for the current fiscal year, and the Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) account, which covers additional money for the Afghanistan and Pakistan is down from $115 billion to $88 billion for 2013. But there is much more to the story than what the raw numbers tell you.

Small steps in the right direction

The Obama administration deserves credit for getting the ball rolling with cuts to unnecessary programs.  As Taxpayers for Common Sense points out, the administration is moving two brigades out of Europe, a place where it hardly makes sense to have a massive military presence. They are delaying the Ohio class ballistic missile submarine for two years and eliminating some funding for the failed missile defense program. Any taxpayer money saved on this kind of wasteful program that doesn’t serve an essential security function signifies a step in the right direction.

Taxpayers for Common Sense highlighted some program terminations in their analysis:

Today’s biggest news was probably the list of program terminations released with the White House budget request. DOD programs on that list include:

  • C-27J cargo aircraft. The strategic review revealed that C-130s would do the job of flying equipment around overseas. DOD also decided to curtail its ambitious, $6 billion program to modernize the C130s. Savings: $480 million in FY12 alone.
  • Defense Weather Satellite. This Air Force program was a spin-off of the National Polar Environmental Satellite, a prototype of DOD’s overloaded, over-budget satellite programs. Savings: $3.8 billion.
  • High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) capitalization. The Army had planned to upgrade 6,000 of the vehicles so they could be used in “air assault operations.” Documents admit the effort “would cost too much for a niche capability.” Savings: $489 million.
  • Joint Air-to-ground Missile. This program has had a bulls-eye on its back for a while, owing to the fact that its function is essentially being filled by other missile programs. Savings: $1.6 billion.
  • Sea-Based X-Band Radar – this missile defense program will go on “limited test support,” meaning it can be used in testing but won’t be operational due to its “costly, maintenance-intensive” platform. DOD officials said today they would trim the sea-based elements of missile defense but protect “homeland” programs and the European Phased Adaptive Approach. Savings: $500 million.

For more on what’s in and what’s out, see TCS’s full analysis and the Project on Government Oversight’s live blog.

Less is more—when cuts aren’t really cuts

While there is a modest decrease proposed for 2013 (about 2.3% in inflation-adjusted terms), the Pentagon’s five-year plan anticipates base military spending reaching $567 billion by FY17. These are only reductions in the sense that the Pentagon is spending less than they would have liked (and than the CBO had initially projected based on the Pentagon’s plans). This comes after historically high levels of spending, with military budgets increasing by almost two-thirds over the last decade.

More than one way to define security

There has been a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric thrown around about the threat to US global military dominance if cuts are made to our bloated military budget (and unfortunately Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has given right wing hawks plenty of ammunition by blabbing about the US becoming a “paper tiger”). Even if the additional $500 billion of sequestration cuts were put into place, that would only bring US military spending down to 2007 levels; you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s going to credibly argue that the US was in grave danger at that time.

Aside from the fact that the US would still be the world’s most dominant military, vastly outspending all other countries around the globe, there is the larger question of defining security in more than one way. The equation is not simply number of billions spent=level of safety and security. The US has gone into debt spending more than $1 trillion on war in the last decade, with questionable security rationales. That’s on top of the steadily growing Pentagon budget.

How has it damaged our economic security to spend that money that could have gone to things like job creation? As a recent University of Massachusetts study points out, military spending is the least efficient way to create jobs. Where would our country be right now if we had invested even a fraction of that base military and war spending on infrastructure and education? Budgets for those programs will take a beating this year, while the Pentagon budget steadily rises.

Scratching the surface

Despite military spending enthusiasts’ attempts to frighten people away from cuts, many credible experts from both sides of the aisle have put together bolder plans for significant cuts that would not harm national security. The Sustainable Defense Task Force identified nearly $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years.  Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) “Back in Black” plan also includes $1 trillion in cuts. The Domenici-Rivlin deficit reduction plan would have frozen defense spending for five years.

These cuts are easier to make when they are driven by a rethinking of US strategy—rather than preparing to fight massive ground wars, which haven’t done much for our security in the last decade, we should be focusing on the tools that most effectively address the threats we face. President Obama has said that the tide of war is receding, and our budget should reflect that. Previous post-war builddowns have seen military spending reductions of as much as 30%.

As James Traub points out in Foreign Policy, President Obama is actually to the right of conservatives on the issue of making significant cuts to military spending.

Using war money as a Pentagon slush fund

While the decrease in OCO funding is larger, that account still gets a huge chunk of money, and likely more than the administration actually needs to carry out operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The budget assumes that there would be 68,000 troops in Afghanistan through FY2013, but the president said steady withdrawals would continue after getting down to 68,000 this year, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently announced that they would aim to end combat operations in mid-2013.

What this means is that if withdrawals progress, the extra money could essentially become a slush fund to move over base Pentagon expenses that didn’t fit in the regular budget, yet another way the “decreases” are not what they seem. Congress already used this trick last year, paying for $5 billion in base spending out of the war budget, and there’s no reason to think they won’t try it again.

Even modest cuts in danger

Get ready for a big fight over Pentagon spending this year. Republicans have now made it clear that they didn’t really mean it when they voted for a bill that would trigger an additional $500 billion in military spending cuts, despite the dismal outlook for a deal in the deficit super committee. Now they are scrambling to keep from lying in the bed they made for themselves. Sen. John McCain has introduced legislation to replace cuts in FY2013 through a federal employee pay freeze and attrition. Rep. Buck McKeon has introduced similar legislation in the House. A group of Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, pushed back with a letter to the president opposing rolling back defense cuts.

That will be a major fight, but you’ll also see smaller battles over favored programs, and Sen. McCain has said he wants to undo even the modest cuts proposed by this administration.

There is a lot at stake in this fight for our economic and national security, and proponents of smart spending will have to be vigilant in holding Congress and the administration accountable to our priorities.

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