Magazine | December 20, 2010, Issue


Deficit commission co-chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson (Alex Brandon/AP)
Cutting the Pentagon’s budget would be foolhardy

The year was 1981. A new Republican president, Ronald Reagan, faced a ballooning federal deficit and high unemployment. He had campaigned against his Democratic predecessor on a platform of tax cuts and peace through strength. When he sent a budget to Congress that included significant cuts to federal spending, Democrats responded with proposed cuts to defense, in the midst of the Cold War and uncertainty in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Earlier this year, facing economic and national-security challenges perhaps even greater than those of 30 years ago, President Obama created the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to tackle the federal deficit. On November 10, commission co-chairmen Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles made a splash with a set of cost-cutting proposals that would slash federal discretionary spending by $200 billion per year.

A week later, a Bipartisan Policy Center task force led by Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin released a separate study, arguing for cuts similar in size and scope to those in the Simpson-Bowles proposals. Included in both is an extensive military weight-loss plan that would deeply undermine America’s ability to win the war in Afghanistan, preserve the peace in Iraq, protect the U.S. homeland, and maintain America’s stabilizing influence abroad.

Some of the cuts contained in the two reports, including proposals to seriously rein in entitlement spending and simplify the tax code, will be welcome news to fiscally conscious Americans. But the defense proposals are deeply flawed. There is no mention of America’s international responsibilities and no reference to national strategy or our obligations to our allies.

The defense programs selected to be cut appear arbitrary. And though these cuts are modest in terms of the overall federal budget, if implemented, they could have serious consequences for both U.S. foreign-policy objectives and national security for decades to come.

The recommendations disproportionately target defense. Of the projected $200 billion in savings in the Simpson-Bowles proposals, half is drawn from the Pentagon’s coffers. That’s a bold figure, considering that defense spending accounts for only 20 percent of the federal budget. It also neglects the fact that domestic discretionary spending has exploded under the Obama administration, increasing 24 percent over the past two years, while defense spending has risen only at the rate of inflation. Because of this uneven approach, Obama’s massive increases in domestic entitlement spending get a pass, while the armed forces are asked to do more with less.

Furthermore, throughout the vast expanse of the federal government, only the Department of Defense has voluntarily opted to clean its own house amidst that expanding deficit. Critics of the defense budget have taken to presenting their recommendations as consistent with Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s proposals, but this distorts his efforts, which would have reinvested any savings back into the Pentagon. It is thus no surprise that Gates responded to the Simpson-Bowles proposals by saying that DoD “is not the problem” and that the recommendations were “math, not strategy.”

#page#National-security strategy is indeed absent from either group’s calculus. Strategy should always guide the defense budget, not vice versa, but both proposals call for cuts to vital defense acquisition programs based on cost, not need. For example, while U.S. Central Command makes a pressing case for more vertical-lift assets, the proposals recommend cutting the V-22 Osprey, a platform essential for transporting troops in Afghanistan’s unforgiving terrain. The Marines would lose the F-35B, which can take off and land from amphibious assault ships and is the only replacement for the elderly Harrier. This would deal a crippling blow to long-established Marine Corps combat doctrine, which requires on-demand close air support for Marine Expeditionary Units. The other services would also have to surrender badly needed replacements for weapon platforms left over from President Reagan’s defense buildup.

Stripping the military of modernization programs that are necessary to prepare it for the next several decades, bringing troops home from overseas for fiscal rather than strategic reasons, and freezing the overall defense budget would portend an American retreat from the international stage just as other powers are on the rise. Simpson and Bowles indirectly acknowledge this, with a statement in their briefing that one of their guiding principles was to cut spending but “keep America safe, while rethinking our 21st century global role.” They conveniently leave the rethinking to someone else.

At a time when we are already asking much of our men and women in uniform, the proposals would slash veterans’ benefits and increase costs for military families. This politically untenable recommendation is also morally unconscionable. Advancing medical technology is saving more lives on the battlefield — thus increasing the number of injured veterans who are dependent on their benefits to provide for their families. It is reprehensible that the care provided to men and women who have been injured, often grievously, in service to their nation is treated as just another figure on a spreadsheet. Both sets of recommendations also propose cutting back programs that benefit military families, including the Department of Defense’s Tricare health-care program. Simpson and Bowles also suggest shutting schools on military bases and raising prices at the commissaries that many military families rely on for their purchases of groceries and other supplies.

The plans offer no suggestions for modernizing the military after the cuts go into effect, or for mitigating the reduction in military readiness that would surely result. The pressure on our overtasked armed forces would intensify if key replacement systems were eliminated while existing military vehicles continued to erode and decay. Though similar cuts recently announced by the British government herald serious problems for our allies, the British did at least try to fix gaping holes in their military capabilities with modernization programs and proposals to offset losses in numerical strength. For example, a low-cost frigate was proposed to help sustain the dwindling Royal Navy, while the army will place many of the tanks and artillery pieces cut by the Cameron government in an inactive reserve capacity. Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin contain no such ideas.

#page#Further lacking from both plans is a basic acknowledgment of the role that the U.S. military plays in sustaining the world economy. Today’s international network of commerce is tightly interwoven. The stability provided by the U.S. military lets free trade and prosperity move forward unimpeded. Our armed forces guard key avenues of commerce, from the world’s oceans to outer space and cyberspace. Volatility in critical regions, brought on by unstable actors like Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hugo Chávez, can cause economic disruptions that ripple globally. Investing in our fighting forces, therefore, should not be considered a drain on the U.S. budget, like entitlements. Rather, defense spending is an investment in long-term American prosperity — and, in the 21st century, global stability.

Speaking of entitlements, the recommendations do not touch the real elephant in the room: Obamacare. The president’s massive health-care bill dropped a whopping trillion-dollar burden onto the federal deficit. Polls indicate that the law is deeply unpopular, health experts say it is unnecessary, and — pending the result of several lawsuits — it’s potentially unconstitutional as well. Compare that with the military, which — according to polling data — is the most trusted organization in the federal government and performs a constitutionally mandated function. We get our money’s worth from our armed forces, so the critical services provided by the Pentagon should not be viewed in the same way as a wasteful political sop to the president’s base.

Cutting defense in the midst of two wars is imprudent and potentially disastrous. The appropriate time to consider defense cuts will be when two conditions are met: Further progress must be made in the War on Terror, and our aging military hardware must be modernized. Until then, the bulk of the savings should come from ever-expanding federal entitlement programs programs and domestic discretionary spending.

Americans have met this challenge before. In his memoirs, President Reagan recounted the pressure he faced to cut defense upon taking office:

Time and again, when I went around the country calling for a balanced budget, I’d get this question: “But what if it comes down to a choice between national security and the deficit?” Every time I answered: “I’d have to come down on the side of national defense.” And every time I did, the audience roared. Nobody wanted a second-class army, navy, or air force defending our country. I wanted a balanced budget. But I also wanted peace through strength.

In the face of the Soviet threat, and despite pressure from Democrats, President Reagan began his buildup of the defense budget just as the U.S. economy emerged from recession in the early 1980s.

Newly elected conservatives arriving in Washington in January should remember his example. The Americans who elected them do not want Congress to gut the U.S. military in a time of war. While there is no denying the seriousness of our fiscal predicament, there should also be no illusions about our strategic challenges. This is where the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin proposals fall short.

– Mr. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. In the George W. Bush administration he served in the office of the secretary of defense and at the National Security Council. Mr. Noonan is a policy adviser at the Foreign Policy Initiative. Before joining FPI, he was a captain in the U.S. Air Force.

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