Defense Cuts Are Mandatory

Deficit Reduction Cannot Otherwise Be Achieved

Lawrence J. Korb, Laura Conley, and Alex Rothman examine the need to take meaningful action on runaway defense spending.

A V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft taxies behind the leader during a mission in western Iraqi desert. Canceling this program is one initiative that could help the Pentagon could save around $358 billion by the end of 2015. (AP/Dusan Vranic)
A V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft taxies behind the leader during a mission in western Iraqi desert. Canceling this program is one initiative that could help the Pentagon could save around $358 billion by the end of 2015. (AP/Dusan Vranic)

Two budget proposals are the talk of the town on Capitol Hill and around the nation—President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012, which begins in October, and the House Republican leadership’s FY 2011 continuing resolution to fund the federal government for the remaining seven months of this fiscal year. Defense spending cuts must be a major part of both budget documents if our nation is going to get its fiscal house in order. Unfortunately neither document goes far enough to make real reductions in our out of control defense budget.

In order to demonstrate the Department of Defense’s commitment to deficit reduction in its budget document, the Pentagon leadership argues that the FY 2012 budget includes a series of “management and acquisition reforms that will produce a net of $78 billion in savings through 2016.” These savings, however, are reductions from projected increases in defense spending and not sufficient to halt the growth of the budget. Even with $78 billion in “cuts,” defense spending will continue to rise over the next decade.

Case and point: For FY 2012, the Pentagon’s baseline defense budget (exclusive of war funding and the defense programs funded by other agencies) comes to $553 billion. This is about 3 percent real growth above the level that the Department of Defense would receive under the current continuing resolution, which expires on March 4.

The continuing resolution proposed by House Republicans, which would fund the government for the rest of FY 2011 after the current continuing resolution expires in March, also allows for continued growth in the baseline defense budget. The proposed continuing resolution cuts $14 billion from the president’s FY 2011 request. Even with this $14 billion decrease, however, it allows defense spending to increase by 1.6 percent over FY 2010 funding.

Both the Obama budget and the continuing resolution prepared by House Republicans fail to make real reductions in defense spending and fall far short of the $387 billion in cuts recommended by the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission. As a result, the defense budget will continue to grow, even as the budgets of other federal agencies are frozen.

Moreover, DOD’s baseline budget request of $553 billion does not include funding for ongoing wars abroad. The FY 2012 request for overseas contingency operations (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) adds another $118 billion in defense spending. Although this is $42 billion less than the current fiscal year, it is nearly $70 billion more than the Obama administration said it would need for 2012 in its initial budget projections in March 2009. Adding these funds, plus defense funding contained in the budgets of other agencies, particularly the Department of Energy, will bring defense spending to slightly more than $700 billion, or about 20 percent of the entire federal budget in FY 2012, and more than half of all discretionary spending.

It is also important to note that the $118 billion budget for overseas contingency operations assumes that President Obama will implement his plan to start a significant drawdown of troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 and completely withdraw from Iraq in December of this year. A failure to disengage from these conflicts could add billions more dollars to the FY 2012 budget.

Finally, the secretary of defense claims that the Pentagon is “reforming weapons acquisition,” “eliminating unneeded weapons” systems, and taking “important steps to tackle burgeoning health care costs.” But these claims mask the fact that, even if these cuts are supported by Congress, the procurement budget and health care costs are growing in real terms and will continue to do so unless real choices, such as those previously suggested by the Center for American Progress, are taken.

As we pointed out earlier this month, the Pentagon could save around $358 billion by the end of 2015 by implementing the following ten measures:

  • Terminate the Marine Corps’s expeditionary fighting vehicle
  • Permanently reduce the number of U.S. military personnel stated in Europe and Asia
  • Redirect the majority of the Department of Defense’s planned efficiency savings toward reducing the baseline defense budget
  • Cancel the V-22 Osprey program
  • Roll back post-September 11, 2001 efforts to grow the ground forces
  • Reduce the number of civilian DOD personnel concomitant with the reduction in military end strength
  • Reduce procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
  • Reform military personnel policies, including the military health care system for retirees
  • Retire and do not replace two existing carrier battle groups and associated air wings
  • Update the U.S. nuclear arsenal and missile defense systems to counter the threats of the 21st century

To date Defense Secretary Robert Gates has implemented only one of the above suggestions—terminating the expeditionary fighting vehicle. As we have pointed out on numerous occasions, Congress will have to have the courage to take the steps the Pentagon has avoided. The House Republicans have taken a step in the right direction with their proposed continuing resolution for the remainder of FY 2011, although a cut of $14 billion is not nearly enough to get our defense spending back on a sustainable fiscal track.

Lawrence Korb, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Laura Conley is a Research Assistant and Alex Rothman is a Special Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at American Progress.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow

Alex Rothman

Policy Analyst