Pentagon review must aim for more than modest cuts in defense spending

Project on Defense Alternatives, Briefing Memo #49, 25 April 2011.

There is good reason to welcome a strategic review, as promised by President Obama on 13 April. For nearly 14 years, US defense policy has been guided by the “QDR consensus” – a set of axioms and imperatives that won adherence among defense planners in the course of four Quadrennial Defense Reviews, beginning in 1997. In retrospect, this consensus has produced a syndrome of profligate and desultory military activism. It has fed the dysfunctions of our military procurement system and helped drive the Pentagon’s base budget to unsustainable heights. Certainly, it is time for a fresh start. But will the promised review deliver?

Will the review be more open and critical than the QDRs it aims to rectify? How deep will it dig? Will it even aim to “rectify?” Or will it serve a more narrow purpose: a revised bargain among the Commander-in-Chief, his defense secretary, and the chiefs of the armed services to exchange modest new constraints on budget growth for a strong rationale, a bulwark, against any further cuts.

What the President seeks is only $400 billion in savings over 12 years – about 6.5% of planned base budget expenditures. Last year, the President’s Fiscal Commission and other independent task forces identified more than twice as much in potential defense savings over a period of just ten years. And it is unclear whether the President intends to extract the $400 billion from the Pentagon’s budget alone or from the larger “security basket,” which includes International Affairs, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.

Also, it is not encouraging that the President applauded Defense Security Gates for having “already saved” $400 billion in previous years, when most of those “savings” never left the Pentagon’s coffers, nor dented the government’s deficits. What the nation needs now are “savings” in the colloquial sense of an actual decrease in defense spending.

A serious strategic review should enable considerably more than a 6.5% retraction in planned future expenditures. It should do more than limit future growth. And maybe it will. But we should recognize at the start that what the President has proposed is not itself substantial enough to actually necessitate a strategic review. Yes, we need one – but not because the President hopes to modestly dampen Pentagon growth.

To be meaningful, such a review must look well beyond $400 billion in savings, and even beyond what the Fiscal Commission and other task forces have proposed. Of course, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen disagree. They have already publicly derided any substantial new constraints on their spending as putting the nation and its armed services at risk. The strategic review should be more than a conciliatory concession to their concerns, which are tendentious.

We can gain needed perspective by comparing recent budget submissions and proposals in historical context. This table prepared by PDA converts recent plans and proposals into average annual Pentagon base budgets, expressed in 2010 dollars. It shows that the President’s requests and proposals, including his recent one, would produce average annual budgets that occupy a narrow band of spending. They are all close cousins.

Even the more ambitious proposal by the Sustainable Defense Task Force does not go far afield.

All of the President’s requests and proposals produce average annual budgets that, in real terms, exceed previous spending, exceed Reagan-era levels of spending, and substantially exceed average spending during the entire Cold War period. (And, notably, the budget average for the Cold War years includes war spending, while the more recent averages do not.)

We should gladly accept the opportunity for a review of defense planning and work to make it worthwhile. But we need not and should not accept the idea that modest revisions in budget planning give good reason to hit the “strategy panic” button.

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