Scale Back the Defense Budget

Three Goals for Defense Budget Savings

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced earlier this month that the Pentagon will reduce projected defense spending over the next four years by $78 billion. The projected savings will come from pursuing a number of savings and efficiencies initiatives to halt wasteful and unnecessary spending, including cancelling or slowing down programs that are not performing as needed. Although Gates’s plan only slows down the rise of projected spending, rather than producing a much-needed reduction in the budget topline, President Obama should build on the momentum of the secretary’s announcement in his State of the Union address later this month. In particular, the president should use this opportunity to announce three budget-saving goals.

First, Obama should endorse further reductions in defense spending over the next five years. Obama could pursue a number of sensible reductions in other major acquisition programs in addition to the programs Gates targeted for budget cuts. For example, even Secretary Gates has questioned the rationale for maintaining 11 U.S. aircraft carriers, when “in terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.” Obama could also suggest reductions in spending for the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, cancel unproven and unnecessary missile defense programs, and realize some long-term savings by working to pass the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.

Second, the president should use his State of the Union Address to push for a Unified National Security Budget, a concept Secretary of State Hilary Clinton endorsed last year. Presenting Congress with a unified security budget, rather than separate budget requests for the Defense Department, State Department, USAID, and the Department of Homeland Security, would allow lawmakers to make trade-offs and realize savings while rebalancing our defense, diplomacy, and development priorities.

Finally, Obama should announce that he will work with the Pentagon to implement the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy no later than June 30, 2011. He should also announce that in the interim no serviceman or woman will be forced out of the services under this policy.

Congress officially authorized the repeal of DADT late last year. The policy remains in place, however, until the president, secretary of defense, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that DOD is ready to implement repeal and can do so in a manner “consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.” Repeal can be implemented quickly without the widespread negative consequences predicted by some opponents of dropping the ban, as the Center for American Progress and many other organizations have demonstrated.

Implementing the repeal will inevitably require some short-term costs. But, removing this discriminatory and unfair law will also allow DOD to retain some highly skilled personnel who might otherwise have been discharged at significant and unnecessary cost to American taxpayers. For example, Air Force Lt. Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, a highly decorated F-15 weapons systems officer, who is currently at risk of being discharged under DADT, estimates that the military spent up to $25 million on his training.

U.S. defense spending is now at its highest levels in real terms since the end of World War II—higher than peak spending in Vietnam, and higher than military spending at the height of the Reagan build-up in the 1980s. With the United States scheduled to withdraw the last of our forces from Iraq by the end of this year and to begin an initial drawdown of forces in Afghanistan in July 2011, this is the right time for Obama to scale back defense spending. Doing so will not only help bring fiscal discipline to a budget that accounts for more than 50 percent of our overall discretionary spending, but will enhance our national security by contributing to the reduction of our national debt.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow and Laura Conley is a Research Assistant for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.

For more State of the Union policy suggestions see:

Finding Realistic Deficit Reduction by Michael Ettlinger

Exceptionally American Competitiveness by Sarah Wartell Rosen, Ed Paisley, and Kate Gordon

Smarter Enforcement, More Targeted Measures by Marshall Fitz and Angela Kelley

Touting the Benefits of Health Reform at This Year’s State of the Union by Karen Davenport

Education Priority Number One for Congress in 2011: Reauthorize ESEA

Clean Energy Progress Without Congress by Daniel J. Weiss

Outlining a Strategy for Peace by Caroline Wadhams