Hagel’s Defense Cuts: A Good Idea

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees will take up the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (NDAA) over the next month, reviewing a $601 billion total budget request submitted by the Department of Defense and tweaking the plan to reflect Congressional priorities. The Pentagon is asking for $496 billion for the base budget, $26 billion for the defense portion of President Obama’s “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative,” or OGSI, and a $79 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO), largely for the war in Afghanistan. This year’s NDAA will test whether Congress can set aside parochial interests in favor of strategic choices and plan effectively for the future of national defense.

This is a crucial period for defense planning and budgeting. The Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) trimmed $487 billion in planned future spending increases from already elevated spending levels, basically slimming down the Pentagon’s unrealistic budget plans. This reduction in planned spending is often falsely presented as a cut, but it was not. In 2013, the Pentagon refused to submit a budget in line with the BCA caps, triggering sequestration. This $42.7 billion in cuts were less significant than many have argued. They trimmed the fat built up from over a decade of unprecedented increases in defense spending, were partly absorbed by spending down unobligated balances left over from past years, and were further mitigated by shifting funds around between more fungible readiness accounts and into the off-book OCO accounts. The military came through largely unscathed in terms of real capabilities. But since the Department of Defense has cut the low-hanging fruit, it now faces real choices about how to define its priorities and invest its resources for much of the next decade.

This article was originally published in The National Interest.