Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes . . . known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few . . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
– James Madison, Political Observations (1795)
As the sequester looms on March 1, we have heard increasingly dire warnings about the adverse effects on our military should defense spending be reduced. John McCain, the Ranking Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has argued that sequestration “would destroy the military” and result in an “inability to defend the nation.” Similarly, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last August that the sequester essentially “invites aggression” by creating a military akin to a “paper tiger . . . unable to keep up with potential adversaries.” More recently, Panetta claimed that it would force him to throw the country’s national defense strategy “out the window,” threatening the United States’ standing as a first-rate power. “This will badly damage our national defense and compromise our ability to respond to crises in a dangerous world,” Panetta said.
Listening to repeatedly dire assessments, both Republicans and Democrats have appeared more jointly committed to protecting the Pentagon than doing anything about cuts in domestic spending. Moreover, the increasingly hyperbolic debate about defense cuts has resulted in an environment where the scenarios envisioned for the future is either/or. That is, either sequestration occurs and defense spending is reduced to FY [fiscal year] 2007 levels, or there will be zero additional cuts to the defense budget.
Consider, for example, the arguments put forth by Lawrence J. Korb. Korb, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration, has argued that Congress should not act to repeal the defense cuts identified in the Budget Control Act, for six reasons. First, Korb has argued that “a budget of $472 billion is more than sufficient to protect our national security.” According to Korb, in inflation-adjusted dollars, “this is the amount spent on defense in FY 2007 . . . when not even defense hawks were complaining about the budget being too low.” Second, the defense budget has increased for 13 straight years and the Pentagon has yet to make any real reductions. In 2001, the defense budget was $387 billion; in 2013, the defense budget is appropriated at $597 billion. Third, the size of the cuts (a spending reduction of 14 percent) is much smaller than previous reductions in defense spending. For example, Dwight Eisenhower reduced spending 27 percent over eight years, Richard Nixon by 29 percent over six years, and Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton reduced defense spending by 35 percent over 11 years.
Fourth, cutting defense spending by $500 billion would help reduce the federal deficit, which is currently over $16 trillion. Fifth, sequestration would force the Pentagon’s leaders to make significant reforms (e.g., to military healthcare, retirement, and compensation) and cut wasteful spending (e.g., cancelling or reducing unnecessary or underperforming programs). Sixth, and according to Korb, “most important,” “the alarmist claims of those opposed to cuts are bogus.” Even with sequestration, the United States will be a global power: “We would still have more ships than the next 11 navies in the world combined, more manned and unmanned aircraft than any other nation, and a total ground force (active duty and reserve) of 1.5 million highly-trained people.”
On the other hand, many congressional Republicans believe defense cuts should be taken off the table. Even before the Budget Control Act of 2011 was passed, Republicans threatened to blow up the negotiations over the mere rumor that it included cuts to defense spending, promising a “sizable GOP defection in the House.” Hawkish Senators also expressed their concerns about the potential defense cuts. For example, Marshall Whittmann, a spokesman for former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), said that his boss was “very concerned” that the rumored defense cuts would “result in unacceptably high risk to our national security.”
In the intervening months, Republicans in the House have twice passed resolutions replacing sequestration. On May 10, 2012, the House passed H.R. 5652, the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act of 2012, and then on Dec. 20, 2012, the House passed H.R. 6684, the Spending Reduction Act of 2012 (H.R. 6684 was merely an updated version of H.R. 5652). Both measures would have replaced the Budget Control Act’s mandatory cuts with other spending reductions; indeed, H.R. 6684 provided for more even aggressive spending reductions to non-defense discretionary spending, beyond those necessary to replace sequestration. Moreover, both measures would have completely exempted military spending from additional reductions.
Both of these positions, however, ignore the fact that the potential scenarios for the future are not either sequestration or zero additional cuts. Indeed, the sequestration/zero additional cuts scenarios are possibly the worst options available. Permitting sequestration may not result in the “hollow force” some envision (the Defense Department would be able to shift funds to maintain military readiness), but that does not mean that the cuts are advisable. After all, they only exist because Congress could not reduce the deficit in a smarter manner. But at the same time, refusing to consider cutting the over $600 billion defense budget is both fiscally irresponsible and indefensible. Defense spending has been growing unchecked, and if not addressed it will ultimately undermine our country’s economic security, a vital component to the country’s national security interests. As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quipped in 2009, “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.”
The defense budget can and should be substantially reduced, but it must be reduced in a manner that does not jeopardize national security. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush have all demonstrated that this is possible. Nixon reduced the active-duty Army’s size after Vietnam, cut back production of high-end, expensive fighters like the F-14 and F-15, and reduced the number of submarines in our strategic arsenal. Reagan, recognizing that even with only 500 ships the U.S. Navy was without peer, abandoned the goal of a 600-ship Navy. George H.W. Bush ended production of the F-14 and F-15, cut back production of the B-2 bomber, and cancelled the expensive A-12.
But as President Obama has said, “the size and the structure of our military and defense budgets have to be driven by a strategy, not the other way around.” Defense cuts should be viewed in a tempered way. They are difficult and risky, and they should not be made for their own sake. But in the context of reestablishing national sacrifice and fiscal discipline across the government, the United States can and should attempt to save additional dollars in the defense budget.
There are always uncertainties when dealing with significant reforms of this type. For one thing, the prospect of cost-savings is often uncertain. For another, up-front expenses are often needed to implement reforms, meaning that short-term savings can actually be negative. But there are proposals on the table to significantly reduce the Pentagon’s budget while ensuring that the cuts do not compromise vital national security interests or hamper our ability to fulfill our global responsibilities. These proposals range from more aggressive reductions, such as the Center for American Progress’ proposal identifying roughly $109 billion that could be saved in the FY 2015 defense budget, to more “moderate” reductions, such as Brookings’ paper identifying roughly $100 to $200 billion in cuts over ten years.
Entrenched interests will oppose reforming the Pentagon’s budget. But the looming deadline on March 1 has brought to the forefront an important question that has been ignored during the nearly 18-mont debate about the cuts, and seen as politically toxic for over a decade: “How much more should defense spending be cut, if at all, as part of further deficit reduction efforts in the United States?” Answering this difficult question will require robust debate and responsible decision-making. It is Congress we are dealing with, however, and it is doubtful whether they are capable of doing either of those things.