Defense Budget Proposal Postpones Key Choices

The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2015 budget request makes important reforms but should adhere to all budget caps beyond FY 2015.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel yesterday outlined the broad strokes of the Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2015 budget request. The budget puts the Department of Defense on a sound path to responsibly meet the risks and challenges of the current national security environment. The plan also proposes a number of smart, targeted reductions to defense spending that will maintain U.S. military capabilities and the All-Volunteer Force while helping return the country to a peacetime footing. Nonetheless, the Pentagon’s planning process demonstrates that it is still operating under the assumption that near-record-high funding levels will return—that if the Department of Defense can just weather this short-term budgetary storm, it can avoid adjusting its long-term plans to reflect existing fiscal realities.

The Defense Department’s plan would meet the budget cap of $496 billion put in place for FY 2015 under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. At $496 billion, the FY 2015 base defense budget would be roughly equal, in real terms, to the base defense budget of FY 2007, when we had 172,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. This reduction in defense spending and manpower from the record spending of FY 2010 is responsible and necessary following the end of the war in Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan. Additionally, this postwar drawdown is far less dramatic than those following the end of World War II, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War.

This historical context is important, as defense spending—excluding the separate overseas contingency operations accounts that fund the war in Afghanistan and are exempt from budget caps—remains high in historical terms. Additionally, while the United States and its allies face a deeply uncertain international environment with numerous challenges, the country does not face an immediate or existential threat from a large foreign power, as it did during the Cold War.

In bringing the FY 2015 defense budget under the sequester limits, Secretary Hagel, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the White House have prioritized the core defense capabilities that make the U.S. military the strongest and most effective armed forces in the world, while acknowledging the existing fiscal realities. They should be applauded for doing so.

The FY 2015 defense budget makes a number of smart choices, including:

  • Adhering to the FY 2015 budget caps. This allows the Pentagon to avoid the indiscriminate cuts of another sequester.
  • Maintaining an adaptable force focused on the most likely threats. Reducing our Army and Marine Corps to between 440,000 and 450,000 troops and 182,000 troops, respectively, acknowledges that we are moving away from large-scale stabilization operations. The smaller, more nimble forces and increased numbers of Special Forces outlined in the budget proposal will remain the best-trained ground forces in the world. Maintaining a robust Army National Guard and Reserve capability of 335,000 and 205,000 soldiers, respectively, will allow the country to surge our ground forces if major, long-term contingencies arise.
  • Focusing on modernization spending to maintain technological superiority and power projection capabilities. These include investments in a next-generation jet engine, modernization of the Navy’s cruiser fleet, and potential procurement of a small and lethal frigate.
  • Reducing programs that do not suit the current security environment. The proposed budget reduces or ends procurement of several platforms ill suited to the increasingly nonpermissive security environment, including reducing planned buys of the Littoral Combat Ship and more-vulnerable drones and terminating the Ground Combat Vehicle program.
  • Slowing the growth of military compensation costs. Personnel costs currently make up about half of the Department of Defense’s budget. Reforms are necessary to ensure that the services meet their responsibilities to our troops while investing in crucial modernization and readiness accounts.
  • Reducing Pentagon overhead. The request asks Congress for another round of base realignment and closure, or BRAC, cuts, which will reduce excess military infrastructure that no longer reflects our current force structure and defense priorities.

For FY 2016 and beyond, however, Pentagon planners have chosen to ignore the Budget Control Act caps that remain in place, adding $115 billion in spending over the next five years. This means that the Department of Defense will face sequestration again in FY 2016 and thereafter unless spending is reduced or a new budget deal is reached.

The Department of Defense refused to plan for the possibility of sequestration the first time around, believing that Congress would repeal and replace the Budget Control Act of 2011before the sequester cuts took effect. They were wrong, and this mistake forced the military to react quickly and haphazardly when sequestration took effect in March 2013, though the law had been on the books for nearly two years.

It would seem that the Department of Defense is repeating its mistake by ignoring the budget caps in FY 2016 and beyond. The Pentagon’s solution for this difficult reality this time around is to include a series of “toggles”—spending reduction options that can be activated should the Pentagon once again face sequestration. Several of these choices reflect responsible reductions that do not seriously affect U.S. military capabilities and should be undertaken immediately, regardless of any potential budget deal.

These smart sequester cuts include slowing the Air Force’s procurement of the F-35, halting the Navy’s purchase of the F-35C, and reducing Marine Corps end strength to 175,000. The Pentagon has decided to include a backup plan for potential sequester in FY 2016 and beyond but has taken few of the steps that would allow it to responsibly adhere to budget caps that have now been in place for nearly three years.

The FY 2015 budget proposal includes a number of positive changes, including provisions to slow the growth of military compensation costs, reduce excess defense infrastructure through the BRAC process, and limit some unneeded procurement programs. But the United States would be better served if the Pentagon immediately implemented more of the reforms Secretary Hagel outlined, rather than trying to hold the line against further reductions. More of the spending-reduction toggles should be switched on now to avoid more drastic disruption a year from now. It is time for the Pentagon, the White House, and Congress to make the tough choices needed to revamp our military posture, rather than postponing the inevitable and squandering this breathing room.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Katherine Blakeley is a Research Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center. Max Hoffman is a Policy Analyst on the National Security and International Policy team.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow

Katherine Blakeley

Policy Analyst

Max Hoffman

Former Senior Director